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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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August 1969, a poem by G.T. Foster

1 Jun

G.T. Foster spent his childhood in the Central San Joaquin Valley. He attended U.C.R. and taught 25 years for the Los Angeles Unified School District. A Vietnam era veteran, G.T. began his exploration into poetry in the ‘60s. He is currently writing his first novel, The Butt Naked and the Been Dead, and his poetry has been published in The Pasadena Weekly, the San Gabriel Valley Quarterly, Spectrum, and the Altadena Poetry Review.

Hip to the Gyve is his chapbook, in which this poem appears.

 

                                              August 1969

 

Her Afro was so big and mini-skirt so short it was like watching Sandro

Botticelli’s Venus walk up and down Telegraph Avenue dripping wet draped

in a single sea shell while selling Little Red Books   So you watched

 

Power to the peep hole sister   Power to the people, brother

Where the broom does not reach the dust will not vanish of its own accord

Buy a Red Book and come to the meeting

Will you be there?   Right On.   Then right on then!

And before you knew you were an agent of change

Right on…right on…right now

 

But she was a demi-goddess

bound to a petite demagogue

who espoused Power to the People

but whose soul believed the masses

were irredeemably benighted asses

He argued power should rest in hands of intellectually best a small

politically correct central committee of three then promptly pronounced

himself its Leading Cadre

He loved her knot

She’d long been fully involved in the fray

Seen Bunchy Carter gunned-down at UCLA

Anti-Nixon anti-War Black Panthers Pink Panthers Brown Beret

For her and me it was philosophy and championing the common cause

Hippies Blippies Street People’s Rights and for all anti-capitalist laws

 

For him it was sheer power He’d sung,

Dialectically and materialistically I stand

following the Marxist anti-capitalist plan

of V Lenin Joe Stalin and Mao Tse Tung

His vision for a second American Revolution was dashed

by lapse of time and lame lipped excuses

for freshly disclosed Red Guard abuses

Dogmatic and adventurous strategies that clashed

with my own but more importantly too many others

who were also forward thinking sisters and brothers

 

Black Student Unions SDS  Radical Union Core

Freedom Riders SNIC and Veterans Against the War

No way!  It was an iron-on-patch too foreign to hatch

even in Babylonian Berkeley

 

But back to her or was it me at whom she flaunted sexuality

Answering the door in a sheer negligee

without bra nor pantie down under

Repeatedly toying taunting enticing

neophytic me to make political blunder

Her poised to vanquish the wandering eye

with a barrage of anti-male chauvinist thunder

 

It was sexual gratification revolution delayed

although revolutionary musical bed later played

 

Shortly after the glass-jawed movement

hit the brick wall in seventy-two

she’d had enough to tell him after two dogs

and two babies   We’re through

Truth be told he’d forced her hand

having taken a steel pipe to kill a man

 

For all legal fees and her loved one’s life

she vowed to become the barrister’s wife

Divorced her husband married his attorney

and thus did end her revolutionary journey

Occasionally seen haunting the East Bay

poor chap remains delusional to this day

He recognized and confronted me to say

I alone revolutionary remain!

Was it the truth or is he insane?

 

Was so long ago a distant Shangri La it seems

those hopes now most dust lost Utopian dreams

Chance at true social revolution never so real

as the cold hard pipe used my angry hands to kill

 

 

 

A Day in the Park with Mary Jane, by Sandra Maxwell

30 Apr

 

Author, historian and teacher, Sandra Maxwell has spent her life attempting to understand the human condition. Urged by many of her teachers to either teach or write, Sandra chose writing because it puts into one place all of the elements she is interested in. She can study history, explore human behavior, and teach — all at the same time.  She lives happily with her husband Robert in a Victorian cottage and gardens in Southern California called “The Havens.”

 

I moved from a small town in Illinois to Los Angeles in 1968.  I was twenty, naïve to a fault and eager for adventure. I found part-time work while pursuing my real passion, writing for television.  The man I worked for was a professional writer. He encouraged me to stand up for my rights and the rights of those around me. He had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, receiving a broken arm for his dedication to Equal Rights. He had protested against other unjust practices over the years as well.

Armed with a business card he gave me with the name of an attorney who specialized in helping unfortunate protestors who found themselves behind bars, I marched for women’s rights, against the Viet Nam war, against police brutality, and for the legalization of marijuana. Which is what this story is about. Now the saying, “If you remember the 60’s and 70’s, you weren’t really there,” is quite true. But I will nevertheless do my best to relate this little tale.

The sun was bright, the temperature pleasant — in short, another beautiful day in LA.  My husband, our friend Don, and I had spent the night passing joints and talking about the rally today for legalization of marijuana. We were tired but determined to lend our support as we arrived at the rally that was being held in a lovely park in L.A. There were to be speakers and musicians there. I don’t remember who any of them were now. I only know that many were well-known, either in the entertainment industry or as mover and shakers in the current atmosphere of protesting.  I do remember being vigilant about where to sit in case of police intervention. I again checked the leather pouch hung around my waist for that attorney’s business card.

My husband, a musician, wanted to sit close to the stage. I reminded him of the recent demonstration at Venice Beach where someone threw a bottle at a policeman. The “police intervention” from that one act led to bloody beatings and several arrests. We began to search for a tree nearer to the edge of the crowd — just in case.

Our friend, Don, had been quiet until we began our search. A veteran of Viet Nam, he had gotten addicted to amphetamines while on duty over there. All he could think of was his need. All we heard as we tried to find the best spot was how he wished he could find someone selling speed. He’d give anything for some speed. Right now!

I was getting nervous. I took my demonstrating seriously and had an inbred sense of responsibility from growing up in Illinois. All we needed was for a cop to see Don buying drugs and we’d all land in jail for sure. I looked up and took in a sharp breath. The grounds were slightly bowl-shaped and around the rim, shoulder to shoulder, stood L.A.’s finest in riot gear.

“Here! We have to sit here,” Don whispered urgently .

My husband and I turned to Don with puzzled looks.

“Just put the blanket here. I’ll explain after we sit down.”

It was a reasonable spot and under a tree, so we laid the blanket down and settled in for the rally.

Don had a goofy grin on his face as he reached under the blanket. He pulled out a small packet of “whites,” then raised his eyes to the heavens. “Thanks.” Someone had accidentally dropped his stash of speed.

I had to laugh. I couldn’t judge. I wanted to make the world a better place, not persecute people for whatever was currently thought a sin. If history taught me anything it was that perceptions of how to live, and what was wrong or right, changed over time.

Nothing happened to provoke the police that lovely day in the park. It was just a tiny moment in time that hopefully brought a smile to some faces.

It took almost three decades to see marijuana legalized. When the bill passed this last election, all I could think of was the goofy grin on Don’s face that day long ago, in the park, sitting on a blanket, waiting to sign yet another petition.

 

 

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/)

Mas Un Mitote, Part 1, by Miguel Roura

29 Apr

MIGUEL ROURA is a writer/Actor/Producer/Activist and a retired LAUSD English Miguel's JC HeadshotLanguage instructor from Boyle Heights.  Since his earliest days during the Chicano movement as a community organizer and educator to his current involvement with CASA 0101 Theatre, Miguel’s life-work has been to contribute to the betterment of his community.  He’s performed shows such as:  Naked Stage Nights, Awkward, Remember La Causa?, Frida Kahlo Ten Minute Festival (No Me Queda Otra), La Bestia Band Theatre Project, Shakespeare Sonnets Night, and the Fall 2014 production of Julius Caesar.

One Saturday in the summer of 1970, I boarded a Tres Estrellas bus and headed south, down the international highway, taking me on my first in-depth exploration of Mexico.

I was part of a group of 150 Chicano students who rented apartments at La Plaza Tlatelolco while attending classes at UNAM –- La Universidad Autónima de Mexico. I came searching for an identity, encouraged by my Chicano graduate student teachers at UCLA, who nurtured me through the first two years, and by my mother’s prodding that I learn the truth about the land of my ancestors. I remember my high school teacher and mentor, Sal Castro, telling us: “Your people founded highly sophisticated civilizations on this continent centuries before the European stepped on this land.” So this afternoon with this group of young enthusiastic men and women, I loaded my baggage on a  coach that took us from Tijuana to Tenochtitlan.

That first day of travel started off full of excitement as we jockeyed for a seat next to someone with whom to share the experience. Once we sat down and the bus started to roll, the conversation focused on the women on the trip with us. Our bus was all male, another was all female, and the third carried the married and matched couples. After the subject was thoroughly reviewed, we took turns sharing why we came on this trip, what part of Mexico our parents were from, and how much Spanish we actually knew. Most of us, whose parents spoke mainly their native language, had that idioma deleted in school by teachers and deans who strictly enforced English-only policies through corporal punishment. Those kids whose parents were second and third generation at the urging of their counselors took French or Italian as their foreign language requirement in high school. After we drank all the beers that the bus drivers provided and we tired of the talking, we each settled into our seat. Images of people and places floated in and out as I sat by the window contemplating the passing panorama.

The words of Ruben Salazar crossed my mind: “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself….” Looking around the bus, I realized I was part of a new generation seeking to re-define itself. What did I know about myself? Mother from Colima, father from Tabasco, and just like their geography, they were extreme opposites. My parents met, married, and divorced in Tijuana; but they “dropped me” (I was born at Paradise Hospital) in National City, California, ten miles north of the border. They raised me in Tijuana until their divorce when I was five. I went to school, church, and to the bullfights on Sunday; my mother was a big fan of La Fiesta Taurina. When I turned ten, my mother used my dual citizenship to exchange her passport for a residence card. As I grew up, what I knew about Mexico came mainly from her recollections and from the conversations I overheard from her friends over the years. Usually the talk revolved around heartache, tears, and suffering. Through my adolescence I never wanted to accompany my mother when she went to visit her family.

But now I was sojourning with other Chicano activists on this  pilgrimage to the land of the chinampas (floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City). Six hours into our trip, I realized I’d transferred from a luxury Greyhound bus to a transport with no air-conditioning, with one very small and smelly bathroom, and a radio with garbled sounds which gave me a headache. I shared the window with my new camarada, Mangas, a moniker he’d tagged himself: his real name was Richard, a 6’2″ chain-smoking Vietnam vet, who was a little older than most of us. We stared at the scorching, sun-drenched Sonora Desert until it was too dark to see anything. The rocking of the rickety bus lulled me in and out of sleep. Far in the distance a summer storm illuminated the distant mountains with veins of muted thunderbolts.

My mother gave me the thousand dollars I needed for this excursion; money she worked for and saved over the years. In Tijuana she’d been a registered nurse at Salubridad (public health clinics specifically for treating prostitues), caring for fichera (woman who drinks with clients at bars and earns a chip for every drink the man buys, which she later cashes in),  prostitutes, and their clients, mostly American servicemen. When she came to the US in her middle-age years, she did back-aching work: sewing, cleaning, and mopping kitchens and toilets in Brentwood and Bel Air homes.

After ten hours on the road, the driver pulled into the bus station in Culiacan, Sinaloa to refuel and to rest.

 

In high school I had never smoked marijuana. Most of the parties and dances I went to only served beer and sometimes cheap liquor. Moctezuma, our high-school class valedictorian, was the first one I saw take out a joint and fire up. He hung out with college kids and professors, and showed off his high vocabulary, which most of us football players didn’t understand.

But on the first days in the fall of ’68, just before classes started, and the first day I moved into the Brown House, I smoked my first toke. Brown House was a student housing complex right behind fraternity row. The university rented it for ten of the fifty male Chicano special-entry students whom they couldn’t place in the dorms. Toby and I were the first to arrive early that morning. He and I had been members of rival gangs back at Hollenbeck Junior High: him from Primera Flats and me from Tercera. But that was ancient history now.

After choosing my room, making my bed, and reading the first chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the early afternoon, I took a walk to the patio to stretch out. Toby was lying down in a couch with a headset and a peaceful look. He asked me if I had heard of Hendrix. I said no. He handed me the headset. He lit a joint, took a deep drag, and then handed it to me. I imitated him but instantly choked on the contents, coughing out the smoke which had made my lungs explode. My eyes watered as the spasm subsided. Thereafter, I lay back to hear and feel the electrical impulses that oscillated in my brain and tingled down my body. With that I became a toker.

Being an only child, I was always hungry for friends. Smoking a joint became a gratifying communal experience. Those were the times of sit-ins. teach-ins and love-ins, rallying at Royce Hall and occupying the Administration Building on Mexican Independence Day 1969. Smoking a joint broke down racial, economic and gender barriers. It was cool to do! People got happy when they knew I had joint to share. Scoring an ounce of weed for the ASB president got me many benefits.

End of Part 1/2. To be continued.

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.