Tag Archives: communism

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

 

 

 

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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.

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.

 

Chile: The First 9-11, Part I, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

3 Aug

Isabel Rojas-Williams has served as Mural Conservancy LA’s Executive Director since 2011. A native of Chile and resident of Los Isabel Rojas-WilliamsAngeles since 1973, she became an immediate and passionate fan of the mural movement here. Isabel pursued a business career ranging from retail sales to wholesale and import/export. She is a longtime civic activist who has served as the Mayor’s liaison to the Latino, the Asian, and the African American Heritage Committees.  Isabel earned her graduate degree in art history from Cal State Los Angeles, and joined the faculty there in 2007.  Among her numerous research works are “Los Angeles Street Mural Movement, 1930-2009,” her master’s thesis, and a video on David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Siqueiros: A Muralist in Exile,” which led to her participation on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretative Center project that was completed in 2012.

Check Isabel’s work at MCLA on the following links: https://www.facebook.com/muralconservancy

and  http://muralconservancy.org

I was born in Santiago, Chile in 1949. In the 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in the global student uprisings for civil rights. In high school I was involved in the struggle for democracy, By the time I got to college, I was fighting for the right to elect Allende in his fourth (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970) and ultimately successful campaign to become president and then to keep his government in power in face of the pending 1973 coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet.

My father was a socialist, a political activist, and a poet who went from town to town to unionize railroad workers. He died of tuberculosis when I was two. He hadn’t even realized that he was sick; that was at the time when they just discovered penicillin, and even though mass production of penicillin began in 1948, by the time penicillin reached Chile, it was too late for my father. My mother figured out later from his symptoms what he had died of.

My mother was from an upper middle-class family. She met my father in a small town where he was organizing. He was a charming man and she fell in love. She also believed in his cause. However, my mother’s father was deadly opposed to their marriage and disinherited her. When Dad died at 33, my mother, who was only 22, was heartbroken. My parents already had two children, my sister and me, and she was pregnant with her third baby. I learned a lot of this through love letters from Dad to Mom; Mom keeps a stack of them near to her, tied with a ribbon, and won’t let us read them, but she tells us what’s in them.

After my dad’s death, my grandfather gave my mom a job as a blue-collar worker in the national dairy distribution company, which he directed. My mom had no babysitter so she’d take me with her to work, leaving the other children with neighbors. As I grew up, I watched my mother’s struggle to survive. After working all day in the dairy company, she took in piecework at home at night. We lived only four doors from my grandparents, but my mom had to rent a room for the four of us from a neighbor. To escape the poverty she remarried at 27 and had three more kids, but my stepfather was not a good man for her. She continued to struggle.

We siblings were very close, like a fist. We all aspired to education in order to escape our poverty and to help our mother.

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13

Isabel’s Mother: Isabel Canales Espinoza

From the time we were 12 or 13, in order to save money for our schooling, my sisters and I knit sweaters, which we sold to members of our family; made our own clothes; and helped our mother iron garments she made for garment factories. Because of all this, I was familiar with the struggles of poor people.

My mother is my hero. She is amazing. She struggled to help feed her kids and to give them an education. She is my daily inspiration.

As a child I was very sick with pneumonia. My grandmother took me to live with her part of the time so she could take me to the hospital daily for shots—she feared TB. I went from one world to another. While at my grandparents’ house, I saw how they lived—they had a chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, and personal caretaker for me. I became aware of the disparities between the rich and the poor. I identified with the latter.

My grandmother was not a cold woman. She had sympathy for the workers; she understood their struggle, and she suffered because of not being able to help my mother. But my grandfather was physically intimidating and arrogant. He thought that he was “entitled.”

I have always been an avid reader, but once in high school I immersed myself in books. I became aware of Fredrick Engels and of Marx’s Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto.

CommunistManifesto

I became a firm believer that capitalism was the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and was run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit. I felt that the only way to blur the lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was socialism. Raised in a country at a time when education was extremely Euro-centric, I was aware of the European student movement of the 1960s.  This phenomenon caused political activism among students all over the globe, including in the Americas. I was one of those political activists. As I approached the end of high school, I became involved with students who attended La Universidad Técnica del Estado. This was the college where most of my left-leaning friends attended and where I studied for one year. We thought of ourselves as Bohemian intellectuals who wanted to make a difference. Growing up in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s, I was—like many of my generation in countries around the world—politically and culturally aware. We championed labor organization, land reform, anti-imperialism, and anti-Vietnam War causes. These were the sentiments that guided Chileans to elect socialist president Salvador Allende in 1970.

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende

[Note by editor: “Salvador Allende known as the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. As president, Allende adopted a policy of nationalization of industries and collectivization. On 11 September 1973 the military moved to oust Allende in a coup d’état. As troops surrounded La Moneda Palace, Allende gave his last speech vowing not to resign, and then committed suicide.” (Source: Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende)]

However, Allende was not allowed to govern freely. The right-wing opposition and the Catholic Church were displeased at having a socialist for president; tensions grew with foreign corporations. The Chilean economy suffered as a result of a U.S. campaign against the Allende government. It was widely known then about the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, following orders from President Nixon to do whatever was necessary in order “to get rid of him [Allende].” (The now declassified documents can be read here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.)

[Note by editor: “The violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende changed the course of the country that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow”; because of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet’s rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history.   (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

Pablo Neruda and Allende

Pablo Neruda and Allende

So to keep our dignity and our voice while our rights were denied, a cultural resistance was born. Mural brigades expressed political views on Chilean walls (“…podrán cortar las flores pero no podrán evitar la primavera…,” which means “they can cut the flowers, but they can’t keep spring from coming.” Other slogans were: “Another Chile is possible,” “Let’s build a new Chile,” “Children are born to be happy”). Pablo Neruda’s poetry was circulated underground from hand to hand, and we reveled in Victor Jara’s songs of love, peace, and social justice. This was the environment in which Chileans like me lived.

Chile.Victor Jara.Santiago.ifsa-butler.org

Victor Jara

[Note by editor: Victor Jara (September 28, 1932 – September 16, 1973) was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile. Shortly after the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973, he was arrested, tortured and ultimately shot dead with 44 machine-gun bullets. His body was later thrown out into the street of a shanty town in Santiago. The contrast between the themes of his songs, on love, peace and social justice, and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADctor_Jara)]

One of my professors in college offered me my first “real” job, as a secretary in the Registro Nacional de Comerciantes (National Register for Businessmen). The purpose of this organization was to pull together under one umbrella all the smaller business organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce around the country. One of the directors of the Registro was the president of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce; many years later he was to become my husband. At the time we became friends because he, unlike many of the other businessmen, gave money to charity and was more middle-of-the-road than the others. He would speak up on behalf of poor people. I felt I could trust him and a few of the others. My future husband did not know about my political sympathies and activities; neither did my family.

My job was to take shorthand at the directors’ meetings, and I was the secretary of the organization’s legal department. I met the ministers of various government agencies and three presidents (Jorge Alessandri, Eduardo Frei, and Salvador Allende). I was 19 and got to travel throughout Chile. From all this I learned what was happening within the power structure. At the same time I was still demonstrating in the streets, living a double life; I worked with the right-wing businessmen during the day and I was a left-wing political activist at night. After work and school, I would join my political activist friends. The more artistic ones would design slogans that were mimeographed in multiple paper copies. Some of us would mix “engrudo” (wheat paste made of water and flour) and then go to paste political affiches [posters] on the walls. Soon mural brigades were formed and youth began to paint political slogans empowering the people and striving for social justice; this is how The Ramona Parra Mural Brigade was born (BRP). At the same time, along with my activist friends I took part in the frequent student demonstrations to support Allende’s government and to oppose foreign interference (“Yankees go home,” “Este es un gobierno de mierda, pero es mi gobierno” (“This is a shitty government, but it’s my government”).

Chile.Demo for Allende

Most high school and college students, as well as the great majority of Chilean intellectuals, were socialists and communists. By now I was attending classes at the Faculty of Law, Universidad de Chile, where two of the lawyers whom I worked for taught. We suspected that the CIA was involved in Chile. US president Nixon did not keep it a secret that he feared Chile could become “another Cuba.” This knowledge was learned from the foreign press. The U.S. cut off most of its foreign aid to Chile and supported Allende’s opponents in Chile during his presidency.

[Note by editor: “Revelations that President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile to ‘prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him,’  prompted a major scandal in the mid-1970s, and a major investigation by the U.S. Senate. Since the coup, however, few U.S. documents relating to Chile have been actually declassified—until recently. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, and other avenues of declassification, the National Security Archive has been able to compile a collection of declassified records that shed light on events in Chile between 1970 and 1976.”  (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

After Allende won the election in 1970, the U.S. and others began an embargo against Chile. There was nothing to eat whether you had money or not. I was lucky; because of my job with the business organization I worked for, we were able to have access to the basics—beans, rice, flour, and sugar—through their connections, which they shared with me for my family. The upper class, who owned businesses and who were the ones opposing Allende’s government, were hoarding food, which forced people to stand in long lines to get the little food available. I became disgusted and stopped accepting food from the connections at my job.

My friends and I increasingly rebelled. We wanted to keep Allende in power and we fought against the intrusion of the CIA. As the situation became more tense, many of us were at risk of being exiled, disappeared, or even killed. At this time many wealthy right-wingers were leaving the country out of fear of the people. Meanwhile, intellectuals and left-wingers were leaving for safety in order to organize the resistance from abroad. I was terrified about my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth.

To protect each other, none of us activists talked about our political work. I wasn’t even aware that my brother, who is seven years younger than I, was involved in the resistance that opposed Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet

Years later and during Pinochet’s dictatorship, my sister found pamphlets in our brother’s briefcase. I learned through my sister that they were terrified about our brother’s participation in politics. People who opposed Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship were tortured, disappeared, or killed. I, as well as my family, were happy to see my brother immigrate to Switzerland in 1981; he was able to return to Chile in 1989.

My last memories of Chile, the country that I left in a rush in 1973, are chaotic. Two months before the violent September 11, 1973 coup d’état that killed democratically chosen President Salvador Allende, I narrowly escaped being killed by a shotgun pointed at my neck. I was 22 and a college student. I was terrified for my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth. Five long years passed before I was able to see my family again!

[To be continued in Part 2 of 2 about Isabel’s life after she came to the United States, including pictures of some of the murals in Los Angeles.]

“Are You Now or Have You Ever…” : HUAC Hearing in Los Angeles, Part 2, by Lenny Potash

29 Jul

This is the second part of Lenny’s story about HUAC in Los Angeles. The first part appeared a week ago.

The SmiLennyPotash - Copyth Act of the early ‘40s had made it illegal to advocate the forceful and violent overthrow of the government. This act was employed mainly against Trotskyists. Then it became dormant for a while. After World War II the Act started to be used again, beginning with the arrest of national Communist Party leaders (including my uncle in New York). As the Cold War developed, Joe McCarthy became a senator and began pointing to hidden communists everywhere, including in the Eisenhower Administration and the U.S. Army. The hysteria ballooned and investigative committees sprang up in both houses of Congress and in a number of state legislatures. During the ‘50s it seemed like the national favorite pastime became listing suspected reds in various industries such as entertainment and in almost all walks of American life, and then trying to purge or blackball them.

By the time of my subpoena, HUAC was becoming increasingly unpopular. For most it no longer evoked the fear it had five or ten years earlier. We felt that its current shotgun approach was a dying gasp, not a meaningful attack. The San Francisco demonstration in 1960 against HUAC, which was brutally attacked by the police, had educated more people about its attack on the Bill of Rights and democratic participation. In addition, the political climate of the country was changing. The Civil Rights Movement had begun and a new youth and student movement was arising. We felt there was an ascendancy of activism and progressive thought that was beginning to change the political climate. At the same time, we were beginning to think that HUAC was running out of juice.

HUAC.LennyPotash. SoCalHearings.Cover

The hearings were held at the old federal building at 300 South Spring Street. Demonstrators encircled the square block around the building. All kinds of people turned out. Many hundreds joined in: students, supporters, civil libertarians, political activists, including many who had been reticent to stand up in the preceding years during the height of McCarthyism. The demonstrators bolstered those of us who had to appear and testify. Even the media presence was decent. Witnesses went in and out, out and in, and then joined the line. Members of the committee were apparently too intimidated to pass through our picket line; a picture captured them as they entered by freight elevator.

I was somewhat nervous and intimidated at the hearing but not seriously frightened. In fact, I felt somewhat confident as I invoked the Fifth Amendment, with my ACLU attorney beside me. I even found mild ways to “play” with the committee, asking them about the relevance of their questions. At one point I interrupted the proceedings to ask them to introduce themselves to me. My lawyer kicked my shin.

HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.125

[Note: This is the first page of Lenny’s testimony (or lack thereof). The complete transcript is at the end of this article.]

They asked me if I was carrying out the popular front policy of the party and whether I was on its youth commission. One question that particularly irked me concerned a demonstration by the Women’s Strike for Peace. They asked me to identify a photo of myself at that demonstration. “Is this you?” they asked as they showed me a snapshot with one of my kids next to me and another in a baby carriage. In fact, I had been doing childcare while my wife Ida took part in the demonstration. Their questions implied that I was the communist male behind the scene pulling the strings.

Some of their questions mixed me up with my cousin in New York, whose name I share. Of course, the committee knew the answers—or thought they did—to all their questions. But if they could get a witness to answer a question, then they could force him or her to testify against others. No longer could the Fifth Amendment be invoked because you had already admitted you were a member or a participant of an organization or event. After that, if you refused answer their questions and rat on others in that group, i.e. “name names” of whom else may have been present, you could be held in contempt and risk imprisonment. Despite the stated purpose of these hearings—to consider legislation—no legislation was ever introduced. The real purpose of the HUAC hearings was to intimidate, to create a climate of fear and suspicion.

The hearing lasted 20-30 minutes for me and it took a number of days to get through all 60 witnesses.

I was probably less worried than others about the impact of the HUAC appearance because I couldn’t be blacklisted or lose my job. I was a part-time student and “self-employed” as a guitar teacher. Mostly I received support from those I relied on to earn a living and from my social circle.

The drama of the HUAC subpoenas and hearings along with the flurry of activity was memorable and in a number of ways presaged the progressive and activist era of the ‘60s, the dynamic civil rights movement, farm worker organizing efforts, the beginning of the women’s movement, and the growing awareness and ending of the Vietnam War.  We didn’t know it then, but that was the last time HUAC came to Los Angeles. [End of text. Following are the remaining pages of the transcript of Lenny’s interrogation by HUAC.]

HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.126-127              HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.128-9

“Could She Be a Communist?” The San Francisco HUAC Hearings, by Kitty Kroger

18 Jul

Kitty Kroger is the editor of this blog. She is also the author of a novel, Dancing with Mao and Miguel, about the seventies, and lives in Los Angeles.

In 1961 I was a senior at Riverside Polytechnic High School in southern California. I had a first-year speech teacher, not much older than her students, named Miss Singler, who seemed very “radical” to me (whatever that meant). As far as I could tell, she and my chemistry teacher were the only teachers in the whole school who were concerned about the political and social events of the day.

In San Francisco in 1960, Miss Singler had in some way been involved in the HUAC  (1) hearings and the police attack on the steps of City Hall  (2). The whole thing fascinated me. It was the first time I’d ever heard about McCarthyism or demonstrations.

HUAC San Francisco2

I’d led a very sheltered small-town life in Kalispell, Montana until I was 13, and then we moved to a suburban community in California. My parents voted conservatively but rarely discussed politics. I didn’t read the newspaper and had no familiarity with or interest in current events. My thoughts were full of philosophical questions such as Does God exist? and What is the meaning of life? My aspirations and my attention in those days lay in attending a liberal arts college, getting a grounding in the Classics and philosophy, and becoming an “intellectual.”

Miss Singler showed us a film of the police attacks and we all discussed it. (3) We students were indignant and ready to take some action. Miss Singler organized us for an event: the PTA had invited parents to a showing of that same film in the auditorium, with the purpose of revealing how student radicals—most likely communist-infiltrated—were a threat to our innocent children and our democracy.

Finally the day arrived. As I recall, students from our class sat in the very back row. When it came time for questions, we were to speak up. Which we did. I don’t remember the discussion or the outcome. What I do remember is feeling confused. Miss Singler brought out incipient feelings of rebellion and indignation in me at the injustice of the hearings and the police attacks. But I didn’t fully comprehend the issue. And I felt uneasy, mistrustful, of someone who was so critical of society as I had always “known” it. Although I don’t recall hearing anything about communism or McCarthyism in my childhood, somehow I must have absorbed the paranoia of the time. At some point, I finally decided to ask my father about it.

“Dad, do you think Miss Singler might be a communist?”

I find it quite remarkable that, given his conservative background, my father seemed completely indifferent to exploring the politics of Miss Singler. What he said I will never forget:

”Don’t ever say that about anybody!” (4)

Notes:

1.  The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War (1945-91). Established in 1938, the committee wielded its subpoena power as a weapon and called citizens to testify in high-profile hearings before Congress. This intimidating atmosphere often produced dramatic but questionable revelations about Communists infiltrating American institutions and subversive actions by well-known citizens. HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s influence was in decline, and in 1969 it was renamed the Committee on Internal Security. Although it ceased issuing subpoenas that year, its operations continued until 1975.  [Source: http://www.history.com/]

2.  Radio reporter Fred Haines describes those events [of May 13, 1960] below:

The “Friends of the Committee” gathered just to the right of this line (the line of students who had been waiting for several hours) . . . . As I watched, (Police Inspector Michael) McGuire opened a way through the center barricade and began to admit the white card holders one at a time; for a moment the waiting crowd paused, and then an angry roar went up. Those in the rear, who were halfway down the stairs and couldn’t see what was going on began to edge forward and in the resulting crush began to press the flimsy saw-horse barricade toward me and the police officers who leaped forward to hold it. Angry cries of “Hold it! Stop pushing!” came from those in front; the barricade held and the police pushed it back to its original position . . . .

The Barricade back and the crowd quiet, McGuire suddenly noticed that the white card holders, who were still filing through, included in their number some students–he lunged forward and grabbed one of them roughly. The student wrenched himself free, shouting angrily, “I’ve got a white card!” McGuire taken aback, let go and seized another by the lapels of his jacket–the young man thrust a 35mm camera in McGuire’s face and tripped the shutter. Again McGuire let go, and several students managed to slip into the Chambers.

. . . Already the singing was beginning again . . . There was only one last move; the picket monitors and others began passing the word to sit down on the floor . . . .

Four or five minutes had passed since the doors were closed on the expectant crowd, and the crisis was safely over. I supposed that the police might begin wholesale arrests shortly, but the possible eruption of violence had been neatly averted, with the vast majority of the crowd safely self-immobilized on the floor . . . .

Moments later, an attorney who was representing two of the witnesses made his way across the rotunda and arrived behind the barricades just in time to see McGuire opening one of the hydrants. He ran over to the officer shouting, “You can’t do this to these kids.” McGuire shrugged him off. An officer behind the center barricade picked up the nozzle of one of the fire hoses which had been unrolled from the floor and pointed it at several students sitting just beyond the barricade. “You want some of this?” he shouted. “Well you’re going to get it.” One of the young men waved at him and kept on singing. A trickle dripped from the nozzle, a spurt, bubbly with air–and then the hose stiffened with the full pressure of the water, which blasted into the group of seated demonstrators.

The rotunda seemed to erupt. The singing broke up into one gigantic horrified scream. People fled past me as I ran forward, trying to see what was going on; a huge sheet of spray, glancing off one granite pillar, flashed through the air in front of me, and I retreated . . . .

For the first time I had a moment to think, to take stock of the situation . . . . during the past few minutes they’d dumped thousands of gallons of water inside a public building, causing several thousand dollars worth of damage (not counting whatever human injury there had been). And they had accomplished nothing. Perhaps 50 people of the 200 had fled . . .  . now they had 150 people wet, angry, and injured, most of whom were rooted to the spot and determined to make as much noise as ever before. (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

Police violence during the “riot”… resulted in the arrest of 68 persons. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

3.  Operation Abolition. The House Committee on Un-American Activities labeled the demonstrations “Communist inspired” and proceeded to produce the now famed film, Operation Abolition, which purported to give the facts about the events in San Francisco. This film was shown throughout the country during 1960 and 1961, and actually turned into the opposite of what the makers intended; the student movement used it quite successfully to educate people about repression. The Northern California ACLU produced a film called Operation Correction, which discussed falsehoods in the first film. Scenes from the hearings and protest were later featured in the award-winning 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (http://www.fsm-a.org); Wikipedia]

4.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who is certainly in a better position than anyone else to know the truth about all Communist Party operations in this country, has prepared an official report on the riots entitled “Communist Targets— Youth.” The report was released by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in July 1960. Five pages of this 10-page report are devoted to factual material on exactly how the Communist Party planned and carried out the San Francisco demonstrations and riots, including the dates and places of party meetings, decisions made at them, subsequent actions taken, and the names of Communist Party members and officials involved. This factual data is preceded by this statement:

It is vitally important to set the record straight on the extent to which Communists were responsible for the disgraceful and riotous conditions which prevailed during the HCUA hearings.

HUAC.J.Edgar

Toward the end of his report, Mr. Hoover summarized the Communists’ role in the riots in these words:

The Communists demonstrated in San Francisco just how powerful a weapon Communist infiltration is. They revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots.

Months later, after certain sources had given nationwide circulation to the claim that the riots were not Communist-inspired, Mr. Hoover addressed the American Legion convention in Miami (October 18, 1960) and reiterated his statement concerning Communist responsibility for the riots:

The diabolical influence of Communism on youth was manifested in the anti-American student demonstrations in Tokyo. It further was in evidence this year in Communist-inspired riots in San Francisco, where students were duped into disgraceful demonstrations against a Congressional committee.

These students were stooges of a sinister technique stimulated by clever Communist propagandists who remained quietly concealed in the background. These master technicians of conspiracy had planned for some time to use California college students as a “front” for their nefarious operations. This outburst was typical of these cunning conspirators who constantly play active, behind-the-scenes roles in fomenting civic unrest in every conceivable area of our society.

Still later, in his year-end report to the Attorney General of the United States, submitted on December 22, 1960, Mr. Hoover stated that in the future:

the Communists hope to repeat the success which they achieved on the West Coast last May in spearheading mob demonstrations by college students and other young people against a Committee of Congress.

Finally, on March 6, 1961, in an appearance before a House Appropriations Subcommittee, Mr. Hoover testified as follows concerning the San Francisco riots:

A most significant single factor surrounding the mob demonstration was the Communist infiltration of student and youth groups engaged in protest demonstrations against this congressional committee. Through this infiltration, Communists revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to convert peaceful demonstrations into riots.

The success of the party’s strategy was vividly demonstrated by the violence which erupted at the San Francisco City Hall where the committee hearings were held. The San Francisco debacle was not an accident. It was the result of minute and skillful planning, direction, and exploitation by a handful of dedicated, fanatical, hardcore members of the Communist Party, U.S.A.

One of the targets of the Communist Party is to step up its infiltration of youth organizations and the demonstration at San Francisco which occurred last year was typical of their efforts.

[Source: California Digital Library (http://www.cdlib.org)]

Blind Power, by Lynne Koral, Part 1 of 2

12 Jun

Lynne Koral

Lynne Koral is the owner of Koraling Genius Consultants, http://www.koralinggenius.blogspot.com, and has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for almost 22 years. She has a Masters in Social Work and in Public Administration and Policy Analysis. Disability issues have occupied her all her life. She is blind.

Part 1

I was a premature twin; my brother was brain-damaged and I became blind after a few months. Doctors aren’t sure why this happens; perhaps it’s because of receiving too much oxygen as a preemie or the use of the wrong kind of lighting. From my birth in 1952 until the early 70s I lived in Queens, New York. My parents were progressives. They met at a folkdance group and both went to Camp Wochica1 in New York. The International Workers Order (IWO)2 sponsored it. My grandpa was secretary of the Jamaica Branch.

 I was bussed to an all-white elementary school (PS179) but there was one African American, who was also blind. It was very difficult for her because she was scapegoated, but it was the only school in the borough that had a braille class. Her brother was gay and committed suicide. The choir sang a Negro Spiritual and her mom wouldn’t let her attend the performance. That was in 1962, before the Civil Rights Movement really took off.

Boycotts of de facto segregated institutions were common. I remember that some of us boycotted junior high school to protest discrimination.3

Grover Cleveland High School in Queens was integrated; there were Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and whites. There was also a lot of unrest. Black students had meetings and teach-ins. Some white teachers were part of SNCC4. I was in Honors English in 1968. My teacher, Mrs. Bruno, was involved in the civil rights struggle. My parents and aunts and I went to anti-war demonstrations.

I was often scared in high school because of the anger of some of the African Americans. People were always talking about the issues of the time. I was riveted to WBAI [listener-sponsored Pacifica Radio], listening to accounts of Selma; Montgomery; Martin Luther King; Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.5

Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney

Julius Lester6  had a show on WBAI and I listened to his folk music. I loved folk music since childhood. My parents took me to concerts: I met Pete Seeger and Freddie Hellerman at one of them. Around 1972 during the time of the Democratic National Convention (George McGovern won the Democratic nomination and later ran against Nixon),  I went to  concerts with friends and heard Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs (at a Washington, D.C. anti-war demo), Harry Chapin in Central Park, and Arlo Guthrie, among others. I attended the Sloop Clearwater Revival7 to protest the pollution of the Hudson River.

Phil Ochs Washington DC

Washington, D.C. demo with Phil Ochs

Tom Paxton

Tom Paxton

Pete Seeger

My friend Caryn was introduced to me by our Braille teacher because she had only recently become totally blind. The school thought it would be useful for her to meet me. She wrote a satirical song about George Wallace,  and I put music to a couple of her poems, which included one about me. We are still good friends.

My older friend Pat was the one who turned me on to good books and early demonstrations, to Julius Lester and WBAI. We used to eat chicken and drink sodas in her bedroom.

In 1968 when I was about sixteen I was sent for nine weeks to a progressive “work camp” called Twin Link Camp8. The older kids—from 14 to 17—had the job of maintaining the camp. I was Jewish but there were all kinds of religious views there including atheists. We learned about conflict, struggle, class, and race, and had constant meetings. We were assigned roles; some would be working class for a day, others middle class, then switch roles. Morris Eisenstein from Brooklyn was the camp leader. He was autocratic, dictatorial, authoritarian. (I didn’t like him.) However, he was an effective leader. My parents didn’t like his attitude towards my twin brother Steven, who suffered from mental disorders. I learned the lesson that just because you are left-wing doesn’t mean you are nice.

At the camp we put on a play by Clifford Odets called “Waiting for Lefty” and also a Brecht play. We wrote songs. We learned about Sacco and Vanzetti9, whom I’d never heard of before. It was also the first time I met Native Americans: an Apache named Gil Gutierrez and a Choctaw or Chickasaw woman named Suzanne Heard. When I got back home, I was spouting camp rhetoric.

[To be continued]

Notes

1.  Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers Children’s Camp). This interracial, co-educational summer vacation camp was situated in Port Murray, New Jersey. Founded in 1934, it closed in the early 1950s, partially as a result of McCarthyism. It was one of many Communist camps (twenty-seven were run at one time in New York state alone). In 1943 black children made up 20% of the residents. Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie visited or worked at the camp during its existence. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

2.  The International Workers Order was a Communist Party-affiliated insurance, mutual benefit and fraternal organization founded in 1930 and disbanded in 1954. At its height in the years immediately following World War II, the IWO had almost 200,000 members and provided low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, and supported foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities. The organization also operated a summer camp and cemeteries for its members. The IWO also ran a Jewish summer camp, Camp Kinderland and the racially integrated camp Wo-Chi-Ca. While the leadership of IWO sections were members of the Communist Party, most of the IWO’s rank-and-file members were not party members. The U.S. Attorney General placed the IWO on its list of subversive organizations in 1947. (Source: Wikipedia)

3.  Boycott of junior high school to protest discrimination….those active in the New York City’s school integration battle of the 1950s and 1960 also exposed the limits of the city’s racial liberal image. The school integration movement exposed how those who ran the school system, those who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and many of the members of the city’s liberal community opposed attempts at city-wide integration. New York’s failure to respond to the problems of its minority populations revealed the limits of its liberal reputation. (Source: Clarence Taylor, Professor of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, http://www.nyc.gov/html/cchr/justice/downloads/pdf/civil_rights_movement_in_nyc.pdf)

4.   The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) was one of the organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It had projects in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Maryland, and played a major role in the sit-ins and freedom rides, a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the next few years. It organized voter registration drives all over the South.. In the later 1960s, led by fiery leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, SNCC focused on black power, and then protested against the Vietnam War. It passed out of existence in the 1970s. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

5.   Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered in Mississippi on June 21, 1964.  During the summer of 1964, they volunteered for Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive for African-Americans. On June 21, 1964, a County Deputy stopped the trio on traffic charges. They were jailed briefly and then released. But as they drove away, as many as 22 members of the Ku Klux Klan stopped the car, gunned down all three and buried their bodies, which were discovered 44 days later after an informant tipped off the FBI. (Source: Carl Ballard, PBS NEWSHOUR)

6.  Julius Lester is an American author of books for children and adults, and taught for 32 years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also a photographer, as well as a musician who recorded two albums of folk music and original songs. (Source: http://members.authorsguild.net/juliuslester/)

7.  The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. is an organization based in Beacon, New York that seeks to protect the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands and waterways. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

8.  Twin Link Camp.Twin Link Camp (later Camp Hurley) was a summer camp in the Catskills purchased In 1958 by the community center of a New York City public housing project. It closed in 1987. The center that purchased it was  loosely modeled on the settlement house concept; it networked with many of the large social movements of the era, exposing young people to numerous civil rights and peace marches. Its political motto was “Think globally, act locally.” [Source: Issues in Teaching and Learning, Volume IV, online]

9.  Sacco and Vanzetti were suspected anarchists who were convicted of murdering two men during a 1920 armed robbery of a shoe factory in Massachusetts. After a controversial trial and a series of appeals, the two Italian immigrants were executed on August 23, 1927. Since their deaths, critical opinion has overwhelmingly felt that the two men were convicted largely on their anarchist political beliefs and unjustly executed. (Source: Wikipedia.org)