Sunday, March 16, 2014

When Radicals Reform

Something happens to radicals in this country as they age out of their wild youths, and some of us, like me, seem to get more radicalized as we get older. I've been thinking about this topic for quite a few years, and have written quite a bit about some of the transformations that have taken place among some of the (more or less) political and social radicals who have been important at various times in my life.

Names pop into mind:
  • Mario Savio -- who is in a class by himself
  • Jerry Rubin
  • Abbie Hoffman
  • Angela Davis
  • Bobby Seale and Huey Newton
  • Mark Rudd
  • A number of members of the Royal Chicano Airforce
And others will pop into mind as I wander around the topic for a while.
Mario Savio on the Sproul Hall steps (now named for him) December 2, 1964

Mario Savio, I think I've made clear, was a huge influence on my youthful perception of what worthwhile rebellion was all about. He stood on principle, head and shoulders above nearly everyone shouting and carrying on in those days, the early '60s, just before the '60s became the '60s of lore and legend. I've been reading about him in Seth Rosenfeld's "Subversives," and while I knew some of his backstory and what became of him after the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley --  in sketchy outline -- the details are somewhat surprising.

He was such an influence on me -- though I was in high school 80 miles away from the Berkeley campus -- because I felt such a strong kinship with him, wanted to say what he was saying, wanted the freedom he was advocating, wanted the human dignity that he said over and over was the due of the students at Berkeley and by extension, was due everyone, not because they earned it or fought for it but because they are. Mario's iconic speech on the steps of Sproul Hall (the University's administration building) has echoed down the years, and it resonates as strongly now as ever if not more so.

 There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

There was a good deal more to the speech than the penultimate paragraph, but that's what has lived on and has inspired generations of righteous rebels around the world. There is a time... Yes, there is.

Even then, I was aware that he was coming from a moral, much more than a political, grounding, but I wasn't aware of his Catholic faith, nor was I conscious of his Freedom Summer efforts that year (1964) and how that experience had shaped his sense of injustice -- and what to do about it. I just knew that he was standing up for human rights and human dignity, standing in the schoolhouse door, and it was a fierce counterpoint to the efforts of so many authorities, in and out of the South, to limit and curtail rights and access to education, freedom, and justice.

What Mario did was deeply radical at the time, something that may be overlooked now because we're so used to similar types of efforts on behalf of dignity, freedom, and justice. But at the time, these things were very rare, and rarely did they succeed. Submission to authority and social conformity were the cultural norms, and woe betide you if you rebelled or deviated from the norm. Mario was arrested and otherwise subjected to "university discipline." But he never seemed to lose his sense of mission and purpose.

I didn't know until many years later how difficult this whole thing had been for him, and how in its aftermath, he faced a long period of doubt and sometimes despair, how he struggled with mental illness, and how eventually he became a professor at California State University, Sonoma, where he was teaching philosophy, mathematics and logic when he died of heart failure in 1996.

He gave voice to a generation of rebels, and yet later in his life, he conformed to an academic discipline and was rarely heard from on the topics that had been so important to him during the Free Speech Movement. Which is not to say they didn't remain important to him and to many others. It means only that his voice was muted as he grew older, and his life became more, not less, conformist in the academy.

I'm still learning about his later life, and I may come to another conclusion about him. For now, however, I'll posit that when radicals are subsumed in the academic environment, they become defenders of what they once rebelled against. Mario is a type model of what happens.


Jerry Rubin, at the HUAC hearings, San Francisco, 1967
Jerry Rubin was a huge influence on me a little later on -- largely because he was so spectacularly theatrical in his rebellion. I didn't realize until much later how old he was compared to me and compared to "my generation." He was born in 1938, ten years before I was, and yet at the time he was raising hell, I thought of him as barely older than me at all.

I had one encounter with him during a campus ruckus at which I was more a spectator than a participant, and I was surprised at how physically small he was and how remarkably modest, considerate and thoughtful he seemed to be in person compared to his often over the top and out of control media presence.

"Flamboyant," "flashy" were terms used to describe his antics, but they were usually wonderful antics, garnering  enormous amounts of attention -- as well as frequent ridicule. He didn't seem to mind, and he didn't seem to care.

Rubin is often credited with the catch phrase "Don't trust anyone over 30," although he was himself over 30 for much of his rebel career. The phrase, however, was not original with Jerry. Rather, it came from the Free Speech Movement, particularly from Jack Weinberg, whose arrest on Sproul Plaza lit the match for the Movement. (Weinberg is an interesting case in his own right, and I may get back to him anon.)

Jerry's theatrics were essentially a form of marketing, and later in his life, after his rebel period, and after he went through a series of changes, including marriage, he became a securities broker, and eventually he became a multi-level marketing executive, and they used to say  he was "selling Amway" -- but it wasn't Amway. He was declared "the first Yuppie." Mark Ames, now of Pando, took him (and by extension, all hippies and Yippies and Yuppies) to the woodshed in a swell article at the eXileD online from 2011. How embarrassing it all was for Ames to look back on.

The embarrassment factor would actually be something that entered into the reforms many radicals experienced as they aged out of their wild(ish) youths.

Jerry went on trial for his part in the Yippie actions at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and throughout the trial he made a spectacle of himself and a mockery of the court, which in its majesty under the redoubtable Judge Julius Hoffman, mocked itself as often as Jerry's tantrums and costume changes did. From that moment, I think, few Americans would be able to see the vaunted justice system the same way again, and many would see it for what it is: a two tiered system of injustice.


Abbie Hoffman will be forever linked with Jerry Rubin, of course, and their fates, superficially might seem similar. Both died too young, Jerry by accident (or rather misadventure) and Abbie (supposedly) by suicide, though why he might have chosen that path is still a mystery and some observers suspect he was "suicided" -- perhaps one of the early examples of the treatment. I don't claim to know. But this is what I wrote about him on the 109th anniversary of my father's birth:

And the star of the show was Abbie Hoffman. There was no doubt that it was a show and he was an absolute star. Simply amazing.

And my doG he and those with him got a lot done. To say that protest and resistance and monkeywrenching, and yes, clowning when the situation calls for it, is "ineffective" -- after what Hoffman and others were able to do -- is so full of shit and ignorance the mind boggles with the breathtaking arrogance of it.

Hoffman was a character, no doubt about that, and he relished the spotlight. He was a liberationist, not a communitarian, and yet every cause he supported and everything he did seemed geared to "be of service" to far more than himself and his image and reputation.

Somehow too many Americans have lost that spirit, or maybe never knew it.

He was an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; he was a committed anti-war activist; one of his stunts was organizing the "Levitation of the Pentagon;" he always encouraged others to get involved and he was very successful in motivating otherwise passive or apathetic individuals to get off their butts; he went to the New York Stock Exchange and threw fists full of dollars down on the trading floor making some of the traders scramble to get the money.

Of course his arrest and trial in Chicago for his participation in the Democratic Convention protests in 1968 is the stuff of legend, and while his trial with that of the other "Chicago 7" was going on, his antics in court were magnificent, appropriate for the political trial context, and utterly contemptuous. Where are those today who will so creatively and gleefully expose the corruption of justice that passes for our court system today?
 His books -- like Steal this Book and Letters from the Underground -- are still inspirational.

He went underground when he was set up by police as a big cocaine dealer and ultimately skipped bail. But while underground, he remained active as an organizer and writer. When he eventually surrendered to authorities, he was given a light sentence and was released after four months, something that is almost impossible to conceive of given draconian sentencing these days.

Abbie Hoffman was one of those involved with the revelations about the CIA's illegal involvement in the "Contra" war against the Sandanistas in Nicaragua when, at trial after his arrest (along with many others) for protesting the CIA's recruitment at the University of Massachusetts, Daniel Ellsberg, Ramsey Clark, and Edgar Chamorro, among others testified to decades of illegal and violent activities by the CIA.

Hoffman is alleged to have committed suicide by ingesting over 150 Phenobarbital tablets on April 12, 1989, but many of those who knew him don't believe it was suicide. Instead, they suspect he was "suicided," though just how is a mystery. The "why" is obvious. He remained a very effective organizer of trouble and afflictions for the powerful and comfortable to his dying day, and if there was anyone in America at that time who "needed suiciding" by the Powers That Be more than Abbie, let's hear who.
Jerry stopped being a radical in the political sense and became the First Yuppie instead. He was hit by a car while crossing Wilshire Blvd, and even though some people think it was a "hit," the signs point to no. No, he'd reformed, and he'd become very successful financially. That's what always counts in America. The money.

Abbie did not reform, not really. He remained true to himself and to the principles of resistance he'd been espousing most of his life. He continued to fight the good fight on behalf of others. Abbie was a couple of years older than Jerry, and he was far more grounded in social and political movements than Jerry was. He knew whereof he struggled. Jerry, for all his dynamism and charisma, always seemed somewhat lost or flailing.

Because he didn't reform, I think it more likely than not that he was "suicided" for his continued outspokenness and disobedience, though there is no way to prove it. But too often, this is what happens to radicals who don't reform and conform and quiet down.

Angela Davis Wanted Poster, 1970

Angela Davis, to my eye, learned that lesson well. She, of course, is still considered the (Honorable) Uber Rebel Radical Black Lady, but oh my has she changed. Since retiring from the University of California at Santa Cruz where she was the director of the University's Feminist Studies program. She has since been writing books, collecting awards and honors, and giving what amount to motivational speeches for audiences all over the world, doing numerous TeeVee appearances to discuss her issues (principally prison abolition and women's rights) and otherwise bulwark-ing the left flank of "legitimate dissent" in this country. Well, what a substantive career choice.

Far be it for me to impugn it. I don't. In fact, when we were considering the curious case of Angela Davis around the kitchen table at Casa Ché one day, the point was made that if this is what she wanted to do, why did she have to put the rest of us through what she did back in the day? Yes, indeed. Why?

If this is what she really wanted to do and wanted to become, what was all the hoo-hah about? But the more I thought about it, the more I was sure that she wouldn't be where she is, saying what she's saying, and as honored as she has become if she hadn't done what she did back in the day. It was among the only ways for an outspoken, charismatic, rebel black woman to get a leg up at the time.

You had to do something to knock the Establishment upside the head, or you wouldn't be noticed at all.

You had to. There was no other way. And Miss Angela always, always had a flare for the dramatic.

I thought she was great when she was firebranding all over creation, calling out the "justice" system and the prison complexes it was feeding with political prisoners and innocents. At the time, of course, the prison system was barely a blip on the screen compared to what it is now, but she knew, she knew full well what it was becoming, and she knew and said how the monster soon to arise was being fed and nurtured.

She's always been an academic, something that has typically been left out of her authorized hagiography. Her rise to prominence came when in 1969 she was targeted by the Reagan administration in California for removal from the faculty of the UCLA because she was a damn-dirty-Commie. This action led to a huge brou-ha-ha (one of many over Communist infiltration of the Academy) which resulted in endless gallons of ink spilled and endless TeeVee debate on behalf of the "sides." Ultimately, she was dismissed by the University regents and reinstated by court order, and then fired again for "inflammatory language." She did, after all, relish calling the police "pigs." Given her druthers, I don't doubt she still would.

Some things don't change.

Due to her involvement in the Marin County Courthouse Shootout in 1970 (she bought the guns used by Jonathan Jackson in his take over and hostage taking that led to the shoot out in which a judge and Jackson and two others were killed) she became a fugitive, only the third woman to wind up on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. She was apprehended in New York and sent for trial in California, where, fascinatingly, she quickly became an idol and icon as the symbol of America's growing population of political prisoners. She declared her innocence.  She was supported by hundreds of grass roots activists and -- interestingly -- by some of California's wealthy. Ultimately she was acquitted by an all white jury and promptly became a legend, renowned around the world.

She's channeled but never stopped her activism. While she takes strong stands on issues that are important to her, she has not been involved in anything that could be considered "radical" or "revolutionary" since her trial and acquittal. Some might think she "learned her lesson." She's had a number of academic posts since her acquittal, and has she has rather cheerfully used her positions to further her activism and campaigns.

But she never really challenges Power in any way that Power must pay attention and respond. Instead, she challenges her audiences to think about what is going on in more critical ways. That's a fine position for her to take, but so far, it hasn't led to change.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, armed and dangerous, back in the day.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were the co-founders of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA, back in 1966. They took their inspiration from Malcolm X who had been gunned down in New York (they say by rivals) just a year before the BPP arose in California.

For whatever reason, I wasn't much aware of Malcolm X prior to his death, but boy was I aware of Bobby and Huey. You couldn't help being aware of them, especially not as close as I was to Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. They and the Black Panthers scared the bejesus out of white folks in California and eventually around the country.

I thought it was terrific.

Eventually, Huey would become a fugitive after admitting to his involvement in killing of a Georgia police officer and would live in exile in Cuba for a number of years before he would be gunned down in Oakland, allegedly by a rival in 1989.

Bobby, on the other hand, is still active and an Honored Movement Elder and Bar-b-cue Chef.

While the antics of Jerry Rubin gained so much attention at the Chicago 8 (or 10 or 7)  trial, Bobby Seale was the one who was chained, shackled and gagged in the courtroom for disrespecting His Honor Julius Hoffman and he was the one who would be sentenced to four years in prison for "contempt of court."  The charges against him for "riot" (or whatever it was) were not successfully tried as the judge declared a mistrial.

Upon his release, Seale seemed to be a changed man. Reformed, you might say. He went back to Oakland, reformed the Panthers, ran for office, took up writing, remained -- and remains -- an activist and speaker, but he's not at all threatening to the PTB in his activism.  That's what becoming a reformed radical means, after all.

Mark Rudd in custody, Chicago 1969

Mark Rudd wasn't just a radical, he was a full on revolutionary -- at least if his legend is true. I've always wondered, and when I had the chance at an (Un)Occupy Albuquerque event, I didn't ask him about it. He's written a book, so I ought to look it up. I guess.

As a leader of the uprising and occupation of Columbia University in 1968, as head of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and as a noted fugitive domestic terrorist with the Weathermen that became the Weather Underground, Rudd blazed a remarkable path in the heady rebellious '60s. There was hardly anyone as notorious for a while.

Yet even then and still today there were and are suspicions that he was an FBI informant and/or provocateur. He denies it, of course, but I'd say the question is an open one, in part because of his behavior once he was released from prison (he served a few months).

I certainly was aware of him and I followed his career during the various transformations he underwent.  The foments, the bombings, the uprisings, the occupations, the confrontations, the underground. And then... he disappeared.

Had he been secretly executed? Who knew? I didn't. I got on with my life as most of us did, and then... in 1977, he surrendered. In New York. Where he'd been living and working, openly, though under an assumed name, a few blocks from Columbia University for... years. Gobsmacking. Whuttehfug?

He surrendered, he was charged with a number of misdemeanors, he was convicted of some, but most of the charges that were lodged against him over the years that he was a fugitive-in-plain-sight had to be dropped because of the abuses of the COINTELPRO program which meant conviction was essentially impossible.

Rudd served a brief term in jail, and when he was released, he was reformed. He dedicated his life to absolute nonviolence and social justice. He married, had a family, took up teaching at an Albuquerque community college, and like everyone else, got on with his life as if... what happened never happened.

It was the most amazing thing.

When I encountered him at an (Un)Occupy Albuquerque event, he was so adamant about nonviolence, he was very nearly ridiculous. To his mind, anything that could conceivably be interpreted as discomforting to anyone else was -- by definition -- "violent." Absurd. But it was his argument -- an argument  I suspected he was making for effect rather than because he sincerely believed it.

And there is still the question: how was he able to hide in plain sight for so long? Why did he change so completely after his surrender? Was he an FBI informant? Was he a provocateur? He denies it, but ... I don't know. I doubt we'll ever know for sure.


Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't say anything about the Royal Chicano Air Force, the art-wing of the United Farm Workers in California. There is no movement without art, just as a revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having (h/t Emma Goldman).

The Royal Chicano Air Force was an art collective based in Sacramento that was instrumental in reinforcing and amplifying the message of the United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez far beyond the confines of the oppressed and exploited workers themselves. That wasn't their sole activity but it was an important part of what the RCAF did and was about.

Compared to Cesar, the RCAF was radical. They were artists. What do you expect?

I knew and worked with some of them over the years. Jose Montoya, Armando Cid, Juan Carrillo, Juanishi Orosco, Joe Serna, Gina Montoya, and so many more. We would sometimes discuss... Que pasó...

It's important to ask what happened because over their long years of their activism and arts, the changes they wrought and went through were significant. 

Jose was a co-founder of the group, born in New Mexico, in 1932, so he was almost an abuelo when the RCAF (originally known as the Rebel Chicano Art Front) got under way in 1969. He was muy suave, muy chido. There was no one else like him and everyone in the group looked up to him. He had... presencia.

Perhaps because he was somewhat older, he could guide the group toward the kinds of arts and actions that would most enhance and encourage Chicano life during a time of intense turmoil in California's Central Valley -- where farmworkers, campesinos, were marching and singing and praying every day, and farm owners and their goons were beating, shooting at and sometimes shooting down their own field hands who dared to ask for something more, something better than a short-handled hoe and a rude cabin to sleep in before the next day's hard labor.

The RCAF was rude, rebellious, deeply committed to bettering the lives of the campesinos, and they were often hilariously funny and creative in their rebellion and commitment. California has never been the same since, and for that, we can all be grateful.

Their art works are all over the state, though much of it is concentrated in Sacramento, for many members received commissions from the California Arts Council and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. They ran a bookstore and art gallery (La Raza bookstore and Galeria Posada) that provided a central exhibit space for their works and literary works by Chicano and Native American writers.

Many were closely associated with California State University, Sacramento ("Sac State") where they were either on the faculty or were students. Some stayed in the academy while others branched out to politics and the public arts field. Perhaps the most prominent of the politicians that arose from the RCAF was Joe Serna who served as Mayor of Sacramento from 1992 until his death in 1999. Prior to serving as Mayor, he had been on the Sacramento City Council for 11 years and had taught Government at Sac State.

Armando, Juanishi, and Juan Carrillo all became public arts advocates through their appointments to the California Arts Council and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

The more prominent they became, of course, the less radical they needed to be. They never lost interest in the conditions faced by farmworkers -- after all, many had either been farmworkers themselves, or they were the children of farmworkers. But as they were better accepted into the official world, they were less active in support of farmworkers.

They were aware, too, that they had gained immense privilege compared to the lot so many farmworkers and their descendants. I think Joe Serna was most conscious of his own privilege compared to that of his parents, for example. As time went by, the lot of California's farmworkers seemed to backslide, and when I asked Juanishi and Armando how they felt about that, given their own high status, the answer intrigued me.

To paraphrase: "We laid the groundwork. Now they have to fight their own battles. We'll help any way we can, but we can't fight their battles for them."

There's a superficial truth and there's a deeper truth in that statement. The superficial truth is that these former radicals had reformed, and because they had, they now had privilege -- which they were very aware of -- and status to protect. They were making a good living, and they were never going back to the fields out of necessity, but only to show their support for those still working out in the midday sun.

Conditions for farmworkers and their opportunities beyond the fields had improved greatly since they had been fomenters of rebel arts back in the day, and then those conditions started deteriorating and opportunities seemed to become less and less. But those, they said, were problems for the current generation to struggle against.

It was almost -- not quite -- as if they believed that if the current generation didn't fight for better conditions in the fields and more opportunities beyond them, then they deserved their fate.

This is what happens when radicals reform.

As I've said, I've felt like I became more radical, not less, as I got older, but it's just the opposite in most of the cases offered here. When a certain level of acceptance and privilege is obtained, the radicalism of youth is left behind, as the necessity for protecting status and privilege so hard won comes to the fore. When I think about it, most of my life has been about rejecting status and privilege rather than seeking them out or trying to protect them. I couldn't reform because I wasn't radical enough to begin with.

The few mentioned here who didn't reform too often wound up... dead.

It's tough to be a radical in America at any time, and perhaps it's tougher now than ever before as so much "radicalism" has been almost seamlessly incorporated into the mainstream.

Most of those I've mentioned here were or are well aware of their own status and privilege, make no mistake. Most never gave up the causes for which they had for which they had fought. They changed their methods, however, from pushing or pulling from outside the standard political and cultural framework to working within it. Often that meant they couldn't be as effective, but the trade off was that they were respected.

NOTE: This post is undergoing considerable revision. As it does, I'll add some stuff that may not seem to fit but which is informing some of the revisions under way:

Because of where I  was, there wasn't a lot of Indian radicalism/activism when I was a youth, but what there was was spectacular, such as AIM's occupation of Alcatraz.

The video above features Russell Means' grandson, Nataani. Up to now, I haven't dealt much with the Indian side of activism and radicalism in posts like this one, but as I work on revising this one, the "reform" of some Indian activists will be included among the reformed ones...

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