Tag Archives: protest

Chile: The First 9-11, Part 2, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

6 Aug

My Life in the US

In the United States I lived in Los Angeles at 4901 S. Figueroa, in Highland Park. I worked as a clerk for the York PumpIsabel Rojas-Williams Maintenance, Inc., which took care of maintaining gas stations. Its office was exactly where the Avenue 50 Studio is located today. It was owned by a Chilean, who paid me half the minimum wage. I will be forever grateful to this man who gave me the opportunity to have my first job in the U.S., which allowed me to continue helping my family educate my younger siblings. I hardly spoke a word of English but became immersed in this new world, into which the Anglo workers at the shop integrated me. I worked from 8 to 5, and then attended ESL evening classes at Franklin High School.

By this time my future husband had moved to Los Angeles; he knew my boss. He and I decided to move in together. We lived in a studio apartment at the old building on Figueroa & Avenue 50. I could walk to the post office to send letters to Mom and to my siblings. (Phone calls to Chile were $50 a minute at that time so everyone wrote instead.) The Highland Park Library was also within walking distance so I could check out books written in Spanish; there weren’t many so I read them all over and over. I was lonesome for my family, my language, and my culture.

During the 1970s many Chileans arrived in San Francisco; political activists created groups of resistance formed of the refugees arriving from abroad to oppose Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center was founded by Chileans in 1978 in response to the 1973 overthrow of President Allende. “Song of Unity,” the mural on the façade of La Peña (on Shattuck Ave & Prince Street), was created as homage to Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, and Victor Jara, among others.

In Los Angeles I did not find or know of a group of Chileans doing as much political work as those in the Bay area. I felt isolated and I felt I was not doing my part to help the country I left behind. I was, as all immigrants, trying to survive. But I was also searching for something to identify with politically. It was at this time, when I became aware of two art studios I would see on my walk to the market, the post office, or the Highland Park Library. Highland Park was home to two Chicano artist collectives: Mechicano Art Center (Figueroa and Avenue 54) and Centro de Arte Público (Figueroa and Avenue 56), which included some of the most important Chicano artists of their time: Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Judithe Hernandez, Gilbert Magú Lujan, Leo Limón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez. These artists were greatly influenced by the messages the great Mexican masters depicted in their murals.

As a young woman, I was highly inspired by lovers and philosophers Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual-power couple of the 20th century. They were my political and intellectual inspiration and I wanted to be like them. So, like De Beauvoir and Sartre, I didn’t want to get married. Eventually I did, however, in order to give birth to my son and to appease my mother. My husband and I had brought jewelry (inherited from our grandparents) with us when we left Chile. (That’s about all we brought with us.) At that time, many businesses in East Los Angeles were owned by Jewish families. As the Chicano Civil Rights movement began to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, those families felt uneasy and began to liquidate their stores and move elsewhere. We sold some jewelry we had brought from Chile and put a down payment on a franchise that sold Singer sewing machines in the heart of East Los Angeles (Whittier and Fetterly).

Here it was that everything began to shift for me. East Los Angeles in the 1970s was home to radical strains of politics and a feeder for the Vietnam War, to which disproportionate numbers of Latinos were consigned. Murals were appearing, and it was here where, for the first time, I saw the conceptual art collective ASCO (Willie Herrón III, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, and Patssi Valdez), who often staged the equivalent of living murals in East Los Angeles and in downtown streets. I soon noticed how murals were appearing in East Los Angeles.

Murals.Moratorium BandW

1973. “Moratorium: The Black and White Mural” by Willie Herrón IIIrts, Boyle Heights. Photo from The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles’ website by Robin Dunitz

Murals. Walking Mural

1972 ASCO’s “Walking Mural.” East LA. Harry Gamboa photograph (1972)

“Somos dueños de nuestro propio destino” (“We own our own destiny”), 1971-72: http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/. http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/

Murals. Song of Unity

1978 “Song of Unity” (“La canción de la unidad”) at La Peña, Berkeley. Photo @ Pablo Cristi

I finally found what it was that I could identify with in Los Angeles. I realized that Chicano issues were the same as mine, as the Chilean ones. The issues depicted on the Chicano murals spoke about the very struggles the muralists from Ramona Parra Brigade (BRP) spoke about when defending Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s. The BRP began to mass-produce murals throughout Chile to defend Allende’s government. When Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, persecuting and eliminating anyone who opposed him, muralists with their brushes and paint began to oppose the military regime that established the bloody 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I fell in love with the murals and I realized that my sociopolitical work had just begun.

Murals. Dreams of Flight

Photo © Isabel Rojas-Williams. “Dreams of Flight” (1973-1978) by David Botello

Isabel. Son Pablo Cristi

My son Pablo Cristi and his wife Natsumi Iimura (2013)

I remember walking around in the August heat very pregnant. My son, Pablo Cristi, (named after Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and Pablo Casals) was born in the heat of the summer. I brought him with me every day to the sewing machine business in East Los Angeles. My son would ask me who my Chilean role models were, because for Mexicans there were so many, such as Cesar Chavez, Siqueiros, La Adelita, Hidalgo, and all the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, whom he learned about from his young Mexican American friends. By now I was divorced and as my son grew older, I was exposed to more and more murals in L.A. Many years before I decided to study art history, I learned about and met through my son, who is now a visual artist himself, many artists long before I saw their artwork in books. My son would invite me to Self-Help Graphics to see exhibitions of emerging young artists that have been writing the history of our city in our “open-air galleries” all over Los Angeles.

Little did I know that driving my young teenage son to make “pieces” or to watch murals being made by the L.A. River or under the bridges on Santa Fe Yards would spark my passion for this art. Although neither of us realized it, my son was educating me about Los Angeles culture through his own and other artists’ street art.

Epilogue: My Life After the ‘70s

Then the story came full circle. I became even more fascinated by muralism while completing my higher education at Cal State L.A. I was one of fifteen graduate students in Dr. Aguilar’s Master Seminar, the Seminar that evolved into the remarkable “Walls of Passion: The Murals of Los Angeles” photo-documentary at the school. By this time I was immersed in the history of Los Angeles murals and reading about “Los Tres Grandes” (“The Three Greats”): Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and their inspirational influence on the Los Angeles muralists in the younger artists’ search for identity, racial and political activism, and connectedness to their roots. I learned how the “Three Greats” inspired generations of muralists in the city of Los Angeles and in the world.

As my son grew, so did my knowledge of street art and my awareness of how these muralists and graffiti artists march behind a common banner, fighting with their brushes and their spray-cans against war, inequality, and other socio-economic issues. I learned how murals create a direct connection between artist and viewer. I learned that muralists’ quest for communication, empowerment, and education compel these artists to create ideological works for the community and to confront those observers with the social issues that affect the lives of the artists and the marginalized communities alike in richly diverse Los Angeles.

Since my son was able to discuss art with me, we lived and breathed murals to the point that each of these murals we discussed became, in a way, ours. Once out in the streets and the parks (in areas that in many cases I had never before visited), we began to understand that the murals of Los Angeles could not exist without the communities in which they sit just as we have also begun to realize that Los Angeles would be greatly diminished without those murals.

In 2009 my son and I both received our master degrees, an MFA and an MA. The open-air galleries of Los Angeles bridged the generational gap between us, giving us both the opportunity to engage in the experience of artworks that transform the city walls into beautiful creations that should be preserved as our city’s artistic, cultural, and historic legacy. I became the executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles in 2011. My son is a visual artist who has exhibited throughout the US; he has also painted a mural for peace in North Derry, Ireland and in West Oakland, California. Pablo is currently the co-chair of the Visual Art Department of Oakland School for the Arts.

Isabel. Husband Stephen Williams

Isabel Rojas-Williams and her husband Stephen Williams

2013 will mark the 30th year since I met Stephen, my husband. While I was going through a painful divorce, I met a man who spoke to my heart and my intellect. For the first time in life I met a man who would read Shakespeare to me during rainy nights, recite poems by e. e. cummings when happy, and read Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish to remind me of my country and my family. He also shared with me his love of jazz, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Grateful dead, and the Rolling Stones. He helped me raise Pablo as one of the most understanding stepfathers ever!  Together we blurred the lines of two different cultures that melted into one. Strangely enough, Stephen’s ancestors departed from Scotland into two Americas: Chile in South America and to the United States in North America. It took five generations for Stephen and I to find each other. Stephen is currently a college counselor at Eagle Rock High School and an adjunct professor at both Los Angeles City College and East L.A. City College.

About My Mother

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13My mother is turning 83 this year. She gardens, cleans, and cooks everyday (“because she wants to”). She spends the cold Chilean winters knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for the needy. She goes to church on Sundays. If the weather allows it, she has tea with her “Golden Years” friends on Wednesdays. She is known for raising money or gathering groceries for the families of the imprisoned, and at Christmas time, she helps an orphanage with little gifts for 80 kids. In this latter project she involves everyone around her and that includes her six children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. She is one inspirational woman and she is my mother!


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.


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

“Are You Now or Have You Ever…” : HUAC Hearing in Los Angeles, Part 1, by Lenny Potash

22 Jul

Lenny Potash is retired labor activist who currently spends much of his time and effort educating and organizing labor support for a publicly funded healthcare system that guarantees everyone a high standard of care without the private insurance industry. He is a New York transplant that has lived in Los Angeles since 1948. In his spare time he makes traditional, labor and political music with others, or can be seen peddling his bike around Atwater, Glendale, Silverlake, and adjoining neighborhoods.

          LennyPotash - Copy          HUAC Button

Part 1.

In early April of 1962, I was awakened around 6 a.m. by a banging on the front door. We lived in a small Echo Park house on a hill about 35 or 40 steps up from the street to the door. I went to the door and was confronted by two “suits.” When they asked for “Leonard Potash” I said that was me. They handed me a subpoena and retreated down the steps. OMG, it was a subpoena from Congress. I was required to appear in a couple of weeks at a hearing of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in Los Angeles. By then my wife Ida and our three young children, Robin, almost 5, Arnie, a little over 2, and Cory, 10 months, were all awake.

In a way, I wasn’t surprised.  Long before I joined the Communist Party in the late 1950s, I was a serious political and left activist. As a teenager, I had protested Jim Crow bowling alleys, the lynching of Negroes in the South, the war in Korea, the bombing of a Negro family moving into a West Adams white neighborhood, the death penalty, anti-Semitism, the prosecution of the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobel, and the blacklisting of teachers who refused to sign a loyalty oath, to name a few. I had joined a number of politically left youth organizations including the Jewish Young Fraternalists and the Labor Youth League.

Lenny ca. 1958 with his mother

Lenny ca. 1958 with his mother

But then I thought, Why have they chosen me? They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Although I’d been a political activist since puberty, I still didn’t think I had reached the threshold to warrant congressional attention.

Despite all my political activism, the ‘50s was a pretty unstable time for me. I felt isolated and intimidated by the hostile political climate. At times we were attacked on picket lines. I and most of the activist community felt we were being surveilled (which I obviously was). I had personal issues too. In 1952-53 I dropped out of high school. Although I later took classes at Los Angeles Community College, it was difficult for me because I lacked study habits and discipline. That was also true when it came to holding down a job without much experience and work habits. I got married, and not too long after, Ida and I had three kids in fairly quick succession.

In this round of interrogations, HUAC had subpoenaed 60 people in all. The Committee had taken a “shotgun” approach—that is, cast a wide net over people from all different communities, ages, organizations and interests. I was 26 and one of four or five “youths” in the catch. There were also groups of Latinos, labor activists, professional, and other activists in the group. In the past, these “investigations” by HUAC had tended to target activists involved in a particular area (labor, medical, students, civil rights, etc.)

The subpoena sparked all kinds of activity in the progressive community. A flurry of meetings called by the (possibly ad hoc) Committee to Preserve American Freedoms and led by Frank Wilkinson, was held over the next two weeks at a suite of rather run-down offices located at 555 North Western Avenue. [Note by ed.: A lifelong progressive political activist, Frank Wilkinson was caught up in the McCarthy style redbaiting when he defended a major public housing project, Elysian Park Heights, for the Chávez Ravine section of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Dodger Stadium eventually occupied the site.]  There was coordination between a variety of groups: civil liberties, student groups, some churches, and other progressive organizations. What was hoped to be a large demonstration against HUAC was planned for the days the Committee would be holding hearings. A media campaign was prepared. The American Civil Liberties Union offered free legal counsel for all subpoenaed. This was a first for them. A student subcommittee was formed to “welcome” HUAC to Los Angeles. We felt energized. We believed we could turn out supporters. And we did!  [To be continued in Part 2.]

HUAC OrganizingNewspaper.P5 - Copy     HUAC OrganizingNewspaper.P3 - Copy - CopyHUAC OrganizingNewspaper.P4

[To be continued. Watch for Part 2]

“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)


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.


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)]

Draft Dodger: On to Vancouver, by Suzanne DeRusha

6 Jul

Suzanne DeRusha comes from a radical Los Angeles family. When she was 19, she was one of a handful of demonstrators against the Vietnam War very shortly after it began (“It wasn’t yet declared; they were just sending ‘advisers.'”) Prior to heading to Canada she and her husband participated in a group that reached out to high school seniors, offering them draft counseling and encouraging them to find a way out of going to the war. They called the group Alternatives. After she returned to the U.S. she continued anti-war activism, and remains an activist today in Los Angeles.

Sarge, I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse
Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain’t no fool, I’m a-goin’ to school
And I’m working in a DEE-fense plant.

 Phil Ochs, “Draft Dodger Rag” 1

When my first husband Eddie was drafted in the mid-60s, we were living in San Francisco. His parents wanted him to do “the right thing” so his mom gave the FBI our San Francisco address. We found out about it when she happened to mention it to us in a phone call. Eddie fled to Vancouver, Canada, and I soon followed. It was 1965.


The first time we went to Vancouver, we stayed in a suburb. We rented a room in a gigantic house that was broken up into apartments and rooms. We were in the process of connecting with people in Vancouver. Even though it was only 15 miles or so from Vancouver, there wasn’t a highway at that time, so it took at least ½ hour to get there. The woman who owned it was cold and rude. She had a foster son living upstairs in the room next to ours, and we shared a bathroom with him. One morning I went into the bathroom and the smell of urine was overwhelming. It seemed to me he must have peed an awful lot and just not flushed the toilet. I didn’t understand water issues at the time, but I doubt that was his motive. I wrote him what I thought was a fairly polite note asking him to please flush the toilet. He responded by flushing the toilet every two hours all the next night long.

Shortly after that, the house was sold to a very nice black woman, whose great-grandfather had made it to Canada. We became friends. I remember that her daughter had decided to move somewhere in the South – someplace crazy like Georgia or Alabama, maybe even Mississippi. She said that she would rather face blatant racism than the covert racism she faced in Canada.

We got a call from our attorney, Jean Kidwell, saying we had to come back to Los Angeles right away. There was going to be a hearing to have the case against Eddie dropped on some technicality, and we had to be there to make it happen. We were apprehensive, but we came down. It turned out, amazingly, that there were two draft dodgers with exactly the same name, and the Army couldn’t figure out who was who. Based on that, the case was dropped. We settled down in Los Angeles for a while, and after a few months Eddie got stopped for some traffic thing and was arrested. He got bailed out by Rose Chernin (Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, which became the Committee to Protect the Bill of Rights) and took off immediately for Vancouver. I stayed and worked for Rose for several months before I went back. She was an amazing person and I loved working with her. Every year she put on a festival (I think it was Festival of Nations or something like that), near the end of summer, and we worked mainly on getting everything ready for the festival. The day of the festival, Rose’s car was hit by a drunk driver, and her husband was killed instantly. It turned out to be a terrible day.

At that time Canada was proud to receive draft evaders from the U.S.  Once accepted, draft dodgers were fairly secure there. The country refused to extradite them to the U.S.2  Canada itself had no draft and didn’t agree with the Vietnam war. The Canadian people couldn’t understand why the U.S. was bombing Vietnam. I think they resented U.S. dominance and feared its power and militarism. Nevertheless, not just anyone was allowed to immigrate there. And without immigrant status, you couldn’t get hired (although you were allowed to rent an apartment).

When we immigrated, all you had to do is enter from the United States, and apply for immigrant status. It was almost automatic. You couldn’t apply from the inside; you had to enter Canada from the outside with these items. So we had to exit Canada, pass through the U.S. checkpoint, and then re-enter. That’s where the danger was: at the U.S. checkpoint my husband might be apprehended as a draft dodger.

Between the two checkpoints was a kind of park called the Peace Park3, which straddled the border. On a foggy night, we left Canada and drove through the park towards the American station. We had prepared ourselves well with fake names, occupations, etc. About halfway through the park, we noticed a U-turn. We took it. We pulled the car to the curb and parked for about 20 minutes. The fog was thick; apparently we couldn’t be seen. Then we headed back in the direction of the Canadian border control and presented our credentials for immigration.

Once we moved back to Canada we lived in an apartment in a huge formerly single-family home, which had been divided up into small apartments4. The house was right on the beach, and we had a large octagonal set of windows in the dining room that looked out over the bay. It was a wonderful place to live and we would have stayed there, but the landlords were right below us. They complained that we made too much noise. We often had draft dodgers staying with us, and we would be up late at night talking. Finally Eddie got into a fight with them and they threw us out. (We kind of got thrown out of the second place we lived as well, but that’s another story.)

Eddie got a job driving a cab, which barely held us together until I got a job. Then he quit to pursue his acting career, leaving me to support us. I only got paid once a month, so about a week before the end of the month, I always had to borrow money from a good friend who also worked at the university. Then when I got my paycheck, I paid him back. Eddie landed an acting job and earned $20 a week during rehearsals, $60 during performances. However, he had talent and kept getting better jobs.



Very soon we got involved in a kind of underground movement to help young draftees immigrate to Canada. We “recruited” well-off, liberal, middle-class Canadians as “sponsors” who would take in the immigrant families. We’d raise money and then provide the draft dodgers with $2000 and the addresses of their sponsors.

We would get knocks at our door from all kinds of strangers—sometimes entire families—begging us to help them immigrate. I was astounded! I don’t know how they all found out about us. Our organization took on the task of getting them safely out past the American checkpoint so they could re-enter to immigrate.

One way we found to do that was to take advantage of Canada’s “blue laws,” which prohibited bars. In those days if people felt like imbibing, they crossed just south of the border into Blaine5, Washington. We invented pseudonyms for people and they easily passed through because hundreds of Canadians headed for Blaine every weekend anyway to drink and party.

I enjoyed living in Canada. It was laid-back and peaceful compared to the angry and abrasive U.S. As soon as you crossed the border you could feel a different energy. Canadians were warmer, more generous. Only their sense of humor left me a little unsatisfied, and our jokes were often misunderstood. However, most of us draft evaders found Canada stimulating; many of us were inspired to get involved in creative endeavors such as art or music that we might never have taken up otherwise. Many draft dodgers, such as my then husband, settled in Canada permanently.6

There was one thing that bothered me, however, and that was Canada’s backwardness on the woman question. Although there were no bars, there were beer parlors attached to some restaurants. Women weren’t allowed to enter them unaccompanied unless there was an extra room reserved for women. Another thing I remember was that women were fired from their jobs when they became pregnant enough to “show.”

I interviewed for secretarial positions. It was a horrible experience—the interviewers were condescending and mean. I finally got a secretarial job at the University of British Columba in their Department of Psychology, a job for which the female interviewer told me I was over-qualified. When I explained to her how I’d been treated on other interviews, she nodded and added me to the waiting list, but I had to wait about three months before there was an opening.

We draft dodger families formed our own little community within the city and quickly bonded through our resistance to the war and through our common culture. I stayed two years in Canada. I remember a beautiful beach called Kitsilano. Standing there I felt like the first person to discover it. It looked the same to me now as it probably had looked 200 years ago. There was no development; just me all alone standing on its shore. I could envision the settlers, the early explorers. Of course, today it’s all built up and bustling with tourists.

 Draft Dodger.Kitsilano Beach

Lake Kitsilano

Things were deteriorating between Eddie and me. I became despondent. Although I had acquaintances, I didn’t have any really close friends. As affairs worsened between Eddie and me, I felt compelled to leave, so in 1967 I crossed back into the United States. I immediately sensed the anger and unfriendliness there. I settled in with my parents in Los Angeles and managed to quickly get a job as a medical assistant (for which I had studied in the past). I also attended L. A. Community College.

Five years ago Canada held a celebration honoring the draft dodgers. My ex-husband Eddie was one of the speakers.7


Notes [Sources: Wikipedia and http://www.env.gov.bc.ca%5D

1. “Draft Dodger Rag,” a 1965 anti-war song by Phil Ochs, circumvented laws against counseling evasion by employing satire to provide a how-to list of available deferments: ruptured spleen, homosexuality, poor eyesight, flat feet, asthma, caregiver for invalid relative, college enrollment, war industry worker, spinal injuries, epilepsy, flower and bug allergies, multiple drug addictions, and lack of physical fitness. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie lampooned the paradox of seeking a deferment by acting crazy in his song “Alice’s Restaurant”: “I said, ‘I wanna kill! Kill! Eat dead burnt bodies!,’ and the Sergeant said, ‘you’re our boy.’” “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft” was a text on draft evasion by the late musician Tuli Kupferberg, a member of The Fugs. Methods he espoused included arriving at the draft board in diapers or feigning homosexuality. Another text popular with men subject to the draft was a 1950s cartoon novella by Jules Feiffer, Munro, in which a four-year-old boy is drafted by mistake. Some men, taking an idea from the book, said they might ask the sergeant at the draft examination to “Button me, Mister.”

2. During the Vietnam War, a total of 30,000 deserters and draft evaders combined went to Canada. The Canadian government eventually chose to welcome them. Draft evasion was not a criminal offense under Canadian law.

3.  The Peace Arch is the world’s first monument to peace. Sam Hill a prominent American businessman, conceived the idea of the Arch. Mr. Hill laid a hollow cornerstone within which he placed a hammered steel box made from the steel of a captured slave ship. Inside the box, he placed apiece of the Beaver and the Mayflower. The Arch was fitted with two iron gates, leaving them open to symbolize peace between the two great nations. Peace Arch was dedicated in 1921. The lands around the Arch were gathered through donations and fundraising efforts. Two decades later, on November 7, 1939, the Peace Arch and surrounding lands on the Canadian side became Peace Arch Provincial Park.

4.  In Canada, many American Vietnam War evaders received pre-emigration counseling and post-emigration assistance from locally-based groups. Typically these consisted of American emigrants and Canadian supporters. The largest were the Montreal Committee to Aid War Objectors, the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, and the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors. Journalists often noted their effectiveness. The Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada sold nearly 100,000 copies and was read by over half of all American Vietnam War emigrants to Canada.In addition to the counseling groups was a Toronto-based political organization, the Union of American Exiles. It lobbied for universal, unconditional amnesty, and hosted an international conference in 1974 opposing anything short of that.

5.  Blaine, Washington teemed with taverns and adult entertainment of various kinds due to restrictive drinking and entertainment laws in British Columbia.

6.  Some draft evaders returned to the U.S. from Canada after the 1977 pardon, but about half of them stayed on.This young and mostly educated population expanded Canada’s arts and academic scenes, and helped push Canadian politics further to the left.

7.  Those who went abroad faced imprisonment or forced military service if they returned home. The U.S. continued to prosecute draft dodgers after the end of the Vietnam War. In September 1974, President Gerald R. Ford offered an amnesty program for draft dodgers that required them to work in alternative service occupations for periods of six to 24 months. In 1977, one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter fulfilled a campaign promise by offering pardons to anyone who had evaded the draft and requested one. It antagonized critics on both sides, with the right complaining that those pardoned paid no penalty and the left complaining that requesting a pardon required the admission of a crime.

Rallying of the Blinks in a (Short-) Sighted City, by F. Joseph Spieler

22 Jun

Village Voice Logo

The following article is from a 1969 or 1970 issue of the Village Voice and concerns the Blind Power Movement reported on in the prior post written by Lynne Koral. She is the “Lynne” in this article. The article was reprinted in the 1970 issue of the Braille Monitor, the Voice of the National Federation of the Blind. It was digitized by the Internet Archive in 2010 with funding from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). http://www.archive.org/details/braillemonitorju1970nati

Rallying of the Blinks in a (Short-) Sighted City
F. Joseph Spieler

A rainy day can be a drag for the blind, for the sound of tapping umbrellas is the sound of tapping canes.

“Hey, someone’s coming,” called Pat Logan, as a rapping sound came down the stairs of the elevated subway at 90th Street and Elmhurst Avenue in Queens. “No, it’s just an umbrella.”

“Darn,” she said, and continued her wait with others for more blind people whom she would escort to her home for a meeting of the Blind Power Movement.

A movement of mainly high school and college students, it wants to stimulate and serve–at first–the youth of a blind population that numbers 40,000 in the city. Somewhat to the left in individual persuasion, though non-partisan in its goals, it sees itself in confrontation with the stereotype of the blind as sub-human or super-human (“Oh, look at that blind man, how sad and empty his life must be”–“I know this blind girl, it’s fantastic, she plays the piano and 12-string guitar, and she’s only 16!”), with an industrial society that assumes it has less use for the blind than did Homer’s Greece, and with New York’s state and private service organizations, which, after standing pat on their pioneering efforts years ago, have become top-heavy and self-serving bureaucracies that bind the blind to a system that rewards conformity and punishes dissent, but whose greater evil is to effectively segregate its clients from sighted society.

Walking from the subway to the apartment that 20-year-old Pat, a student at New York University, shares with her mother, seven blinks (“that’s our own sub-culture word for ourselves”) talked about President Nixon, the Moratorium, drugs, rock records, and various goings-on at the institutions for the blind. Jerry, a black high school student, talked with a sighted (their word for you) about being blind.

“Maybe I was kind of up tight with you before, but you have to understand that sighted people have so many preconceptions about us that it can get to be a pain in the —.” In addition to being blind, we’re supposed to be emotionally disturbed, too loud, picky, helpless. It always messes them up to find that we’re like them, that we’re involved in the same things they are, have the same bags and hangups–except that we have no vision.”

The last is important, for the lack of vision in the blind does not imply the inability to “see.” Pierre Villey, a blind psychologist, once wrote: “Sight is long-distance touch, with the sensation of color added. Touch is near sight, minus the sensation of color, and with the sense of rugosity added. The two senses give us knowledge of the same order.”

Soon gathered in Pat’s room–any young woman’s room, with the addition of two tape recorders, a television set (“I like to watch Johnny Carson”), and other sound equipment–were sixteen persons involved in pre-meeting pleasantries. After a few minutes, Lynne [Note: See the prior two posts on this blog by the same Lynne Koral. Ed.], a diminutive seventeen-year-old high-schooler, began axing private conversation by calling it “irrelevant,” and the movement’s third meeting began.

Fitfully chaired by Jerry, the gathering sifted legitimate from personal grievances, split into contentious factions, and then unified itself and put a series of goals on Braille.

The agencies for the blind received the heaviest specific criticism. These institutions, of which the largest in this city are the Jewish Guild for the Blind, The Industrial Home for the Blind, and the Lighthouse (the New York Association for the Blind), provide, in part, mobility lessons (how to travel), evaluation programs for students, Braille, typing, sensory training, manual dexterity instruction, home economics, and reader services. Some run “sheltered workshops”–where blind workers make simple handicrafts for varying rates of pay. Some receive money from state agencies–mainly the Rehabilitation and Counseling Service–for mobility lessons and evaluation testing.

The meeting was unanimous in its anger over what it felt is the arbitrariness shown by the agencies in their dealings with clients (the agencies’ word), their closed mouthedness about information (Wesley D. Sprague, executive director of the Lighthouse, when asked recently how many blind workers were employed by his agency, replied with a long and windy discourse on the meaninglessness of statistics), and the narrowness of their job training programs (the Lighthouse, for example, will train people, regardless of talent, for only three jobs–piano tuning, transcription typing, and newstand vending).

The young people made a special point of telling a visitor how they felt about being talked down to, and being “tested, tested, and re-tested.” They said that the agencies’ subtle, invidious message was that the social and vocational freedom of the blind was severely limited and that they were not to forget how dependent they were on agency support.

“Of course,” said Jerry, “they’ll deny everything and call us paranoid when we say that.”

In fact, a sighted executive near the top of one agency’s hierarchy came close to labeling the movement’s sentiments in just that fashion.–“Sure, they think they’re being given a raw deal,” he said, “but they’re just youngsters. Why I remember I rebelled as a kid myself, and in a way it’s good for them.”

Yet a recent study of the blind, “The Making of Blind Men” by Robert A, Scott, discussions with sympathetic professional workers in the agencies, and a talk with William Underwood, an educational specialist for the American Foundation for the Blind, a national consultative agency that carries Helen Keller’s legacy, indicate that Jerry and others in the movement–who, like many blind clients and agency workers, are fearful that full identification will lose them their services and jobs–are neither paranoid nor juvenile.

Scott’s work, published this year by the Russell Sage Foundation, says that self-conceptions of the blind contrast sharply with those held by workers for the blind, who regard blindness as “one of the most severe of all handicaps,” “Socialization” of the agency’s client, a process that Scott describes as learning “the disability of blindness (as a) social role,” depends on “changing his views about his problem. In order to do this, the client’s views about the problem of blindness must be discredited.” The client “is listened to attentively and sympathetically. However, when concrete plans are formulated, the client learns that his personal views are largely ignored.” A blind person who simply asks for help with reading can wind up facing a battery of psychological tests. If he asks for medical aid, he may be asked to involve himself in a long, complex series of tests, training classes, and re-tests.

Blind persons acceptable to the agency, Scott says, “will often find that the intake worker listens attentively to their views but then dismisses them as superficial or inaccurate.” The result of such treatment, Scott says, is that the client’s ability to act and think independently is severely diminished. Because “the workers have a virtual monopoly on the rewards and punishments in the system,” he continues, the client ends up by conforming to the worker’s conception of what a blind person should be.

Underwood agrees. “To get the services of the blind agencies, the blind individual must conform to the system, and let’s face it, blind kids entering high school and college need their services.”

One woman who holds a responsible position at the Lighthouse, afraid that the use of even her first name would lead to her detection and firing, confirmed Scott’s description in detail. “The thing I absolutely can’t stand is the way they pretend to like blind people–the hypocrisy is sad, it’s sickening.” She recalled an incident in which some blinks, after meeting at the Lighthouse with a psychologist, asked the doctor out for a drink at a nearby bar. Some staff people heard about it and, horrified at the possibilities, rounded up the imbibers into cabs and sent them home.

But beyond the textbook understanding and occasional good intentions of agency staff lies the fact that a small, intelligent, energetic, and growing Blind Power Movement has entered what social scientists anesthetizingly refer to as “the revolution of rising expectations.” The foremost of their goals is “the education of the public to break down stereotypes about the blind, with particular emphasis on the consideration of individual intelligence and talent by educators, employers, and blind agencies.

Second is “increased and diversified job placement, with research into new areas where blind people can find challenging and stimulating work.” (Perhaps nothing gives the young blind the sense of paternalistic manipulation as much as the agencies’ vocational training classes, such as those run by the Lighthouse.)

The Blind Power Movement makes several other demands:

–A large increase in the number of blind staff workers in the agencies. (The movement members and their staff sympathizers speak of agencies’ systematic placing in middle-management jobs of blind Uncle Tom workers who dead-end any innovative and experimental impulses among the clients. One revealing figure is that only one blind person sits on the Lighthouse’s thirty-eight-man board of directors. Imagine all but one of the board of directors of the NAACP in 1969 being white.)

–“Expansion of self-help programs tied to public schooling to eliminate the need for special schools for the blind, which tend to reinforce the segregation of the blind.”

–The creation of “instruction groups in which blind instructors would teach parents how to provide their blind offspring with more mobility–and hence independence–at an earlier age.”

–Tutoring in such special areas as science and math so they may achieve competitive status with sighted students.

The movement is not heady. As well as taking on the agencies–which in the public image have halos around their offices–there is the problem of what Richard Adcock, a seventeen-year-old who attends Grover Cleveland High, calls the “unorganized blind”–those frightened of losing their agency’s services if they join the movement, those who are unaware of the movement (publicity and meetings pose special problems for the blind), and those who feel they can do it on their own.

Joseph Ciccone is one who would like to do it alone. Though he earned a B.A. degree in economics from City College in 1967, he has, at twenty-five, been trained as a piano tuner. He has also taught himself electronics, holds a general-class ham license, and is attempting to start a business as a free-lance recording technician, using his own impressive equipment. “It’s not easy, you always have to fight against the same thing–‘a blind recording technician?'” Though his own experience with blind agencies would have enabled him to write much of Scott’s criticism, Ciccone feels that energy on behalf of the blind should be directed at prying open the job market. Unable to get a job in his academic field, he qualified himself for work as a radio announcer and studio technician–but not one station in this city’s progressive media consented to offer him even a tryout. “It was always ‘we can’t hire blind people’ or ‘we’ll put you on our list and get back to you before not too long,’ but they never did.”

He wishes the movement well but is pessimistic. “Numbers,” he says, “that’s the whole thing about organizing the blind–the numbers aren’t there.”

But the movement doesn’t think so. Its activists say the meetings–which are open to sighted people–are drawing a growing membership, and that they are earning sympathy and tacit support from progressive agency workers. “What we need now,” said Pat Logan, “is publicity, publicity, publicity.”


Editor’s note:  If you are interested in the response of the president of the National Federation of the Blind to this Voice article, then read on. The Village Voice article was reprinted the same year, 1970, in the Braille Monitor, the organ of the NFB, as part of an article by its president, Kenneth Jernigan.

by Kenneth Jernigan, President, National Federation of the Blind

Recently Mike Ewart of Maryland sent me an article from “The Village Voice,” an underground newspaper published in Greenwich Village, New York. Not only did I find the article interesting but I wondered whether these people were part of our movement and what they were really doing to improve the condition of the blind.

Then follows the Village Voice article printed above. Following the article Mr. Jernigan informs the readers of the Braille Monitor what he did next:

After reading this article I wrote to Bill Dwyer, President of our New York affiliate, The Empire State Association of the Blind, and to Sam Wolff, President of the Triboro Chapter of the Empire State Association of the Blind:

April 3, 1970

Mr. William Dwyer
94 Third Avenue
Rensselaer, New York 12144

Dear Bill:

I am sending the enclosed article to you and Sam Wolff to ask whether you know anything about this “Blind Power” group. If they are any good, we ought to get hold of them and bring them into the movement. Maybe they are in the movement. If so, I have never heard of them.

Sam, do you know these people? Can you get in touch with them and see what they are like?


Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

Then Mr. Jernigan writes:

Almost immediately I received a response from Sam Wolff, who said in part:

“This is in response to yours of April 3rd regarding the blind power movement; I have just gotten off the telephone with the party I believe is their leader. She is intelligent, young, and one of the people who I have placed two years ago; she called to tell me of a job opening for another blind person in the hospital where she works. The young lady and her group have little liking for “talk” or organizations. It is unfortunate that their opinion of the Triboro Chapter is one of “all talk and no action,” and this group feels similarly to the ESAB Inc. and the New York State Commission for the Blind as well. The blind power movement is a revolt against apathy and inactivity.

“I happen to have good dialogue with some of the people in the blind power movement, but they want no part of the … much talk and no accomplishment.”

Mr. Jernigan continues: 

I replied as follows:

April 13, 1970

Mr. Sam Wolff, President
Triboro Chapter of the ESAB
11 Park Place
New York, New York 10007

Dear Sam:

If the members of the blind power movement, as they call themselves, are really interested in action, then they should join the Triboro Chapter and, thereby, the Empire State Association and the NFB. Otherwise, regardless of their protestations, they will do more talking than acting, or they will waste their effort in an isolated, fragmentary demonstration, which will end up by doing more harm than good.

One of the most tiresome aspects of the so called “power” movements (whether black, blind, student, or something else) is their seeming arrogance, apparently based on lack of historical knowledge. As Roy Wilkins of the NAACP put it, there were people working to achieve civil rights (and with some effectiveness) before 1954. Otherwise, the first desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court would not have occurred in that year. These things did not happen by accident.

Likewise, the difference between the condition of the blind now and in 1940 when the National Federation of the Blind came into being is profound. Such rehabilitation as now exists (and it is considerable); Aid payments and exempt earnings; and the whole range of improved public attitudes, can all in substantial measure, be traced to the “action” of the organized blind movement, including the “action” of the Empire State Association of the Blind. Even so, many of the agencies for the blind have made real contributions, and some of them are working as constructively and progressively as could be hoped. While we are on the subject, Robert Scott is not a complete paragon of virtue but has some of the grossest misconceptions I have ever met. Things are just not as simple as the “blind power” group would apparently like to have them. However that may be, the real hope for the future of the blind lies in the organized blind movement–the National Federation of the Blind.

It is true that organizations often flounder, that we very often bicker, that local chapters some times do not even have enough talent among their membership to carry on a meaningful or worthwhile meeting. It is true that, despite all of our efforts, more blind people are rehabilitated than employed and that more of the unemployed are living on starvation welfare checks than adequate grants. It is true that most of the comparatively few blind persons who have been successful still think they are superior to the rest of the blind and feel that they made it on their own and that they want to identify and associate with the sighted–except, of course, when they deign to do something “to be of help to other blind persons since I don’t really need anything myself and there is nothing the organization can do for me.” In fact, if all of these things were not true, we would not have the pressing need which we have to build and strengthen our organization. The very fact that so many blind persons are inactive and apparently more interested in recreation and talking than in political action, that they submit to custodialism with seeming gratitude, that they want the emphasis to be on coffee and cake (very often provided by somebody else) at their local meetings—-this fact illustrates and emphasizes the need.

All of the idealism, brains, courage, objection to hypocrisy, and just plain guts do not reside in that segment of the population under thirty. No age group has a corner on these virtues, and it constitutes arrogance and hypocrisy to delude oneself into believing that such is the case. The so called “power” movements often emphasize “rights” to the exclusion of responsibility and, in childlike innocence, blandly ignore long-range consequences, thus doing more to damage than help the cause they profess to support.

Yes, we need action and not just talk, and the NFB is where the action is. If the disability bill passes (with 180 million dollars in the pockets of blind persons the first year) it will be the organized blind who bring it about–the sheltered shopworkers, the welfare recipients, the unemployed, the uneducated–the people who, despite all odds, had the courage and the sense to stick together and work for a goal. If (and it will come) the climate of public opinion changes so that the average blind person can be judged on his individual merit, can be accepted for what he is instead of being victimized by prejudice and discrimination, it will be the organized blind (with all their shortcomings) who bring it about. It will not be the individual “successful” blind person, who thinks he is too good to associate with the rest of us; it will not be the agency for the blind; and it will not be the small, snobbish, elite groups, who think they are too good to associate with their intellectual inferiors, who think they are above going to a routine chapter meeting and helping to plan a Christmas party or talk about the humdrum details of here and now.

We need the members of this “blind power” group in New York City, as we need all blind persons in our movement–the old and the young, the stupid and the wise, the employed and the unemployed, the rich and the poor; but we need them with some humility. They should realize that they (all of them) have benefited tremendously by the efforts of the organized blind movement, even if they have never heard of it. The job opportunities and the social climate are better today than they were a generation ago because of what has already been done, and the blind of our day have some responsibility and obligation to make it still better for themselves and the coming generation. However, they also have the obligation to be grateful for what they have already received from those who have been on the firing line before them.

I hope you will contact your friend who is in the blind power movement and read her this letter. She may not like it, but perhaps it will cause her to do some thinking. The NFB is on the move, and we need all active blind persons of good will to join in the battle. Tell her that if the organization (whether at local, state, or national level) is not what she would have it be, she should join and make it better, not simply gripe about it from the outside.


Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind