Tag Archives: San Francisco

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.

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“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)]