#23 - My radical days

Cartoon drawn by Russell Blackwell as a doodle during on of our Libertarian League meetings.

I came into New York from the wilds of Alberta, by way of Chatham first to recover from the medical complications inflicted on me by a northern ‘bush’ hospital. My then husband, Bob Bates had gone down to New York first, to settle himself and get some kind of job. We set up housekeeping in a big room of what had been a hotel but which was now a sort of tall rooming house with shared kitchens on each floor. I used to take the laundry up to the roof to hang it out on the clotheslines available there. Hanging laundry in the breeze up so many stories above west Manhattan gave me the whim-whams because I have fear of heights. The folks who looked after the hotel/rooming house in the sense of cleaning and repair and so forth were expatriates from Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba. This was just before the fall of Batista and the exhilaration of his downfall at the hands of Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries.

People don’t remember too much nowadays but Batista was a bad guy, especially to Liberal thinking people and leftists. He was a U.S. supported dictator. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and the like were the good guys in our eyes.

On January 1, 1959 Batista was overthrown and, thereafter, various flights out of Camp Colombia took Batista’s friends and high officials to Miami, New York, New Orleans and Jacksonville. Gangster Meyer Lansky, suffering from ill health, also flew out that night. On January 7th Fidel Castro arrived in Havana and, at that time, the U.S. officially recognized the new Cuban government.

The Cubans who were helping to run the building were refugees from the corrupt Batista regime and they had one heck of a whompin’ party when Castro overthrew Batista. Bates was a Socialist so he’d been talking to them at that level. He was invited to the party and I went with him. I have never heard people give so many impromptu speeches in my life It was as if each one in turn was touched by a magic wand and gave a loud and glorious speech, and then on to the next one; all in Spanish of course. I only had a little bit of book Spanish at that time so I only caught a few words like “Viva La Libertad!!!” and “el socialismo y el hombre en Cuba” A great exultation and joy was was certainly there. We stayed a short while and then left because it was their party after all.

The Chatham Public Library was a good source for all kinds of books, thanks to Louise Schriber, the Librarian. I got most of my real education there. I wanted to know something about everything, for reasons of my own, so I read just about everything I could get my hands on – 5 or 6 books a week. I’d see a book and say to myself “I don’t know anything about that” and I’d check it out. This led me, in mysterious ways to Thorstein Veblin, who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and wrote ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ and to Karl Marx, who was very dull and Hitler who was duller.

A humorous British book called “Comrade, 0 Comrade” by Ethel Mannin had a profound effect on me. The book took potshots on the various radical movements then current in Britain and the only group spared was the Anarchists. The author didn’t favour the Socialists too much and certainly not the Communists but really thought the Anarchists were kind of o.k. So, when I got to New York I sought out an Anarchist group and thus I found the Libertarian League. They had the use of a large room halfway to Greenwich Village, near St. Mark’s Square. The landlord insisted on labeling his tenants ‘The Liberian League’ which may have helped to keep the group safe from surveillance by the ‘three letter boys’ as we called the FBI, CIA etc.


The Libertarian League was 'led' by two worthy gentlemen

and Sam Dolgoff <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Dolgoff>

Sam favoured Anarcho-Syndicalism. He was in the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, also called the Wobblies. His famous speech was called “Anarchism and the American Labor Movement”, which was given every time another speaker stood us up at our weekly meeting. We got to know that speech very, very well.

Russell Blackwell was, at first, a Communist. He got kicked out of Mexico for that. He spoke Spanish well. Afterwards he had gone over to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In Spain he became disillusioned with the Communists due to their dirty tricks and went over to the Anarchists. He wandered about there, as was his habit. He would wander into the damnedest places. In the process of doing that after the war had ended, he caught the attention of the new authorities and ended up in Barcelona prison as a spy. He wasn’t a spy. He was just curious. Barcelona prison was apparently in the middle of an artichoke growing district and that’s what the prisoners were fed morning, noon and night. Russell’s wife petitioned the President and the Congress and so forth and, finally, after a long while, got him out – with a lifelong hatred of artichokes. Somehow or other he ended up with the Libertarian League. He and Sam put out an Anarchist magazine called, mundanely, `Views and Comments“.

I don’t like picketing. It makes me feel like a professional martyr but I have marched on a few picket lines. I picketed Woolworth’s for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). The Puerto Rican kids who always followed Russell Blackwell around would march around proudly with us for a while and then dart into the store to buy a candy bar. There’s no way you could explain to them that this was unacceptable under the circumstances.

I took part in one street march – something about Teacher’s Union. There, I found out that a crowd can turn into a mob and the mob had a different kind of mind from that of an individual. A crowd could do some fairly dangerous things once it got started on it’s path. This helped to form my lifelong pledge to stay a way from crowds and, if I saw one forming, I went in the opposite direction.

I had picketed also down at the New York docks, with some Spanish people from Spain, against a ship that Francesco Franco had sent as a training exercise for young sailors. The Spanish picketers were very glad to see me and they were lovely people. This was a rather quiet picket line and I marched and marched around in a circle, and then I went home. That was about the end of it when it came to publicly doing active radical things.

Later, when I went to work for Canada’s Federal Government I did not advertise my political beliefs but simply practiced the principles of Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid‘. I worked for the whole office, not just my little section. I organized a computer club and took an active roll in leading events that were for the benefit of all. I tried to help civilians who came to us for help. I did not recognize boundaries. When our Union went on Strike I was made aware that they were using goon tactics to intimidate workers who did not wish to strike by calling their homes and frightening their children. I refused to be part of this fascistic approach and crossed the picket line daily sometimes facing screaming mobs of picketers. Their cause was just but their tactics were tainted. They did not recognize the will of the individual and that went against my Anarchist principles.

Explanatory Note:
The first order of business for any totalitarian regime, whether Communist, Cuban or Fascist, is to get rid of the Anarchists. Happened in Russia, Germany and Cuba. No room for morality-based radicalism in such domains.
There is a small branch of Anarchism believing in “propaganda of the deed” and those were the ones who threw the bombs and gave Anarchism in general a bad name.

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

Feed: https://www.soniabrock.com/Podcasts/chatham1.xml