The Action Faction

Here is another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 14 and 15, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68. 




Chapter 14 

The Action Faction 


SLF Booted Out 

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America. 

Jefferson Airplane 


On one trip across country, after graduating from MIT, I arrived in Seattle with my MIT friends Peter Bohmer and George Katsiaficas. There we met a group that called itself the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF). These guys had gone to Seattle in 1970 largely from upstate New York, where some had been students. They were intent on making waves and chose Seattle for their contribution. Their idea was to create a gigantic stir, galvanizing rebellion. The people in the SLF weren’t stupid or malevolent, but nonetheless they instructively crystallized misconceived sixties macho madness, of which, it has to be acknowledged, there was way too much. 


I remember arriving, chatting, and then going out with a member of the SLF to get some food for a meal. We went to a supermarket, him dressed in pants that were falling off—he was way ahead of his time on that score—and he promptly stuffed some steaks into his clothes (the actual reason they were so loose) and strutted out safely. Now, I have stolen, in that era in particular, but his approach felt more like bravado undertaken for show than something he needed to do to survive or improve his circumstances. He looked like a child doing something naughty in plain sight, expecting by sheer will to back down his parents. 


Is that what someone else would have seen, had they been along on my chair-stealing episode in Amherst? Perhaps so. Which makes me wonder, as well, about my own mix of confidence and bravado. You see, the Seattle Seven, or whatever it was, turned out to be a disaster for Seattle. They did stir the kettle with their shenanigans. But the resulting chaos wasn’t a positive inducement to activism. Instead, it sowed seeds of enmity and hostility, and, as I heard the stories, the group was finally thoroughly delegitimated in 1971 by Seattle‘s women’s movement, which accused the SLF of violent, macho behavior. 


Theft, however, wasn’t just SLS posturing, but became part of the Left lifestyle for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I once took-off across the country with some friends, with only $5 in hand. I got out West and still had the $5. In those days we routinely stole our food, or scrounged it. We would go into a restaurant and eat off people’s plates, sitting down for our meal in seats others had vacated, and eating the rest of the meals they had left on their plates. Alternatively, we would order and eat full meals, and then all but one of us at the table would leave the restaurant, while the one left would go to the bathroom. When that last person left the bathroom, he would leave the restaurant as well. If he was stopped, he pretended to believe his friends already paid. You could only pull off this trick safely if you had enough money on you to pay off the tab if you were stopped. Having the funds made the scam believable. Moreover, to do it morally we had to ask the waitress whether she would get stuck for the tab if we didn’t pay. If she said yes, we would go somewhere else. The waitresses never ratted on us—they had no love, of course, for their employers. What was the difference between good stealing and bad stealing? A fine line. 


While we are at it, there is also the opposite side of the coin: being ripped off. I lived for a time in a small apartment in Harvard Square above some stores. You could not only go down the front stairs and out into the Square, you could also go out a back window and climb down to an alley and from there go out to the Square. I had my stereo ripped off a couple of times from this place, via that rear window. My reaction was another of my not-proudest moments. 


Each time my stereo was ripped off, maybe four times in six or eight years, here and at other apartments too, I would tell my father, who, in turn, reported it to his insurance company to get funds for a replacement. Each time I would go to the stereo store and let them know I was getting a new system and that it would cost whatever the insurance company felt the last one was worth, and that’s how much I would have to spend on it. Each time the store would vouch for my having had a prior system that cost more than it really had. In this way, I kept upgrading my stereo. Stephen Shalom finally pointed out to me what I conveniently hadn’t considered for myself. I assumed I was not only improving my listening experience but was also striking a blow against the corporate insurance business. 


Steve noted that what probably happened due to thefts was that the insurance outfits raised their rates, so I was really redistributing wealth from the rate-paying public to myself. In retrospect, it is likely a bit more complex. For example, if there was less theft could the insurance companies bargain as much from the public? Would their rates drop if theft dropped? If not, if the theft didn’t increase their power to extract fees, then theft really did reduce what they accumulated without raising what the public paid. If the theft did enable them to charge more by the same volume than in its absence, then Steve was right. 


I should note in passing that this reasoning might well have been the origin in me of what I think is an important insight about capitalist economy. Prices move with bargaining power. Who gets what is determined by a clash and jangle of countless interactions. You can’t look at only one or two to predict outcomes. You can, however, predict large-scale market biases if you pay attention to overarching power relations. Powerful actors dump pain onto weak actors and retain gains for themselves. The insurance companies have a lot of power, way more than thieves or consumers, so insurance companies are rarely victimized. 


While living in Cambridge, I had a Chevrolet Camaro that my parents had gotten me. I was the youngest child and got the most goodies because of it. It was the early years of that Chevy model and the car was sporty and got ripped off often. Cambridge was the car-theft capital of the country at the time, but this was actually people taking cars to joyride, not to paint and sell. The Camaro would turn up a day or two after being taken and the police would return it barely worse for wear. This got so predictable that I used to leave a note in the windshield when I particularly needed the car the next day. I would tell the thieves please to not take it that night. I only left the notes sometimes, and it was never taken on those nights. The joyriders and I had a thing going. 




Weather Forecast 


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. 

—Charles Dickens 


In my opinion, the New Left represented an immense outpouring of solidarity, humanity, and creativity, with some rough edges, of course. The amazing and hard-to-comprehend feature of the rough edges is that by and large they weren’t due to disturbed souls, ne’er-do-well personalities, moral misfits, or even just average folk. They arose from some of the most exemplary people in my generation. I am talking about people who went down self-destructive and otherwise harmful byways but who certainly were not pursuing wealth or power despite having plenty of means to do so. 


For example, the organization named Weatherman, after the Dylan line "you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," was an outgrowth of some foolish differences within the major student and youth movements of the time. The Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a Maoist spinoff from the Communist Party, started joining SDS in 1966—infiltrating so as to overcome. The PLPers pushed old-style Marxism, wore suspenders to look like workers, and had old-style mannerisms. These guys not only sounded like textbooks, they didn’t even like rock and roll. SDS polarized, and finally split. At MIT, for example, PLP had its own ridiculously out-of-touch SDS chapter, alongside our hip one. The Weather people, going another step, decided that the population of the U.S., in particular the workers who PLPers celebrated, were a moral and social basket case. It would be hard to convey the anger that could arise, breaking into serious fights, between these scuffling sectarian trends. PLP disappeared as a relevant factor, especially for me, but not Weatherman. 


With the exception of some more enlightened elements of the black and other minority communities, and of course also excepting the occasional white traitor to the U.S. who signed up to join Weatherman, the Weather people considered the U.S. population too bought off to see its own subjugation, much less to feel solidarity with people in Indochina and elsewhere. Weatherman thus came to the conclusion that a revolution in the U.S. depended overwhelmingly on the fighting tenacity of people in other countries. What did that leave for Weatherman to do? They could extend Third-World movements into the U.S. as a fifth column. They saw no hope of building massive movements here, but felt they could be a domestic thorn in the side of imperialism, helping the rest of the world bring imperialism down. 


I first heard all this when the Boston chapter of Weatherman was trying to recruit me. You have to understand, again, these were highly educated, well-spoken, and, in virtually every case, highly committed folks. They also packed a wallop when it came to guilt-tripping and they asked me and Robin Hahnel to come along on a modest action, to see how they operated. 


So Robin and I went with a few Weather friends, including one who is now an organizer in LA, one who is an elected political official in Connecticut, and one who is a historian in New York. About ten of us, or thereabouts, piled into a subway car heading for the stop nearest a large dorm at Boston University. While in the subway car, trundling along underground, one of the Weather people, according to prearranged agreement, stood up on his seat to give a speech to his captive audience of other subway riders. He nervously yelled out "Country sucks, kick ass," and promptly sat down. That was his whole speech, and their whole message. It was their entire case. It was their whole damn enchilada. No wonder you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows. They had nothing useful to say about the wind or anything else. Robin and I weren’t impressed. It didn’t seem likely to go down in history as comparably eloquent to Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech or Fidel Castro’s "History Will Absolve Me" speech. This wasn’t a historic "Sermon in the Subway." 


At any rate, we got to our stop and piled out. We were led into a BU dorm hosting a freshman mixer—or market, more aptly. The girls were meat. The boys were shopping. Weatherman, particularly in Boston, was significantly affected by the women’s movement. It was not only out to end imperialism, but also to end patriarchy. So far so good, you might reasonably think. The plan for that evening, however, which Robin and I got to see unfold due to Weatherman’s efforts to use this event to convince us that we should join their organization, was to teach the BU freshmen a thing or two about tactics and goals. The slogan of th

Leave a comment