Peter Camejo – A Remembrance

[This is the presentation by Gus Horowitz at the memorial meeting for Peter Camejo, Berkeley, CA  11/23/2008
Readers, please bear in mind that there were many speakers, so the time constraint was pretty strict]

– – – – –

I’ll begin with a story from 50 years ago, when Peter and I were freshmen and college roommates at MIT.

The occasion was a physics exam, a tough exam, with one question that stood out for its difficulty. Afterwards a group of us gathered around to discuss the proper, textbook solution to the problem, using the various tools provided by calculus. Peter, it turned out, had completely bypassed the standard approach and solved the problem by a simple appeal to symmetry. His solution was obvious and intellectually elegant.

Although I have long since forgotten the problem, I have always remembered Peter’s ingenious way of solving it.

I knew from that moment that Peter was a creative thinker, a talent that served him well over the years.

The first part of Peter’s political life took place in the Socialist Workers Party, and spanned a period of about 20 years, from a little before 1960 to a little after 1980.

During that time Peter’s creativity was evident. He was always trying to find imaginative ways to respond to new events, creative ways to promote our ideas and advance the cause of social justice.

Sometimes, because we were a very small organization, you could almost feel Peter straining against the bonds of our limited size, because we were just too small to carry out this or that really great new idea of his.

Peter actively engaged in, and was a leader in most of the important activities of the time.

He defended the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X, and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma. He became a major figure in the youth and anti-Vietnam-War struggles centered in Boston and Berkeley.

He engaged in various Latino struggles, which came to the fore in the 1970s, the fore-runners of the immigrant rights battles of today.

He was also a champion of civil liberties, and helped launched our major legal challenge to the government’s COINTELPRO program of spying and dirty tricks against the left.

Peter was an internationalist. He traveled the world and engaged actively with like-minded revolutionaries in the Fourth International.

Peter was a master at popularizing our ideas. The pamphlet from his SWP years, “How to Make a Revolution in the United States” is a wonderful example. Agree with him or not, the reader can see how skilled Peter was at arguing effectively for his ideas.

Peter ran for President in 1976 on the SWP ticket. Many people described it as the best socialist campaign since Debs.

Peter was a magnetic speaker and could inspire people like no one else. He captured the imagination of young people eager for fundamental social change, and he convinced many to join the fight.

Someone said of him, quite aptly, that he was the “darling of the SWP rank and file.”

Peter liked to help others.

Carol Lipman Reed tells of the time when she was national secretary of the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam and had to speak up in the debates at the SMC conference in 1970. This was a daunting task, since there were 3,500 people present, and loud, vigorous arguments were flying all over the place.

Peter Camejo was sitting next to her.  As the arguments swirled, she relates, “Peter was whispering into my ear, telling me what he would say in response to various points of view.

“When I got up, I still heard the whispering  from Peter, the way he formulated his ideas.  So, I verbalized Peter’s whispers, and I received thunderous response from the participants.

“I knew then, just for a few moments, what it was like to be Peter Camejo.  I looked over, and saw him, with that Peter Camejo smile.  He was very, very pleased.”

Peter had a strong playful streak. He was always up for poker, or the latest brain-teaser puzzle, or bowling, or the game of GO.

Christine Hildebrand tells of the time in Boston, in 1970, when at the end of a long summer day of busy work, Peter said, “Hey, why don’t we all go skinny dipping in the lake.” So, a mixed group took him up on the idea.

Now, of course, this had the potential to be embarrassing. That only became fully clear when the bright police spotlights shone down upon them, and it hit home that Peter, at the time, was our candidate for United States Senator.

But Peter was an escape artist as well, and came through the predicament unscathed.

Now, everyone here has probably heard Peter speak, and you know how good he was at it. But perhaps you have wondered how Peter would do speaking in front of a really big crowd, a crowd of say, 100,000.

So, I’ll conclude by reading a brief description of Peter’s speech at the big anti-war demonstration in Boston in October, 1969.

The organizers of the demonstration initially did not want Peter to speak. They were afraid of what he might say. So they put him last, in the hope that the crowd would have started to disperse. This account was written afterwards by Ken Hurwitz, who was from the sponsoring group that did not want Peter to speak.

“Still a step or two away from the microphone, [Camejo] started his speech. He didn’t want a single person to leave the Common before he had a chance to work his spell. The words came in a high pitched, staccato cadence, and his whole body vibrated to the rhythm…

“I expected   [these are still the words of Ken Hurwitz]  the next shot of the crowd to show [only] five thousand people sitting in front of the platform and ninety-five thousand people heading for the … subway station.

“But that wasn’t so.  People were listening and responding.  Certainly the majority wasn’t agreeing entirely with the revolutionary stance, but they were listening…

It didn’t matter whether we were socialist revolutionaries or not. He made us hate the war perhaps more than we ever thought possible. It was a scourge, a plague – there could be no ‘timetable’ for ending it. It had to be ended now.

“Camejo spoke with such easy power, it was demagogic and frightening.  This was a day of peace, but he made me see just how close the peace in the antiwar movement always is to something far more charged and militant…

“Camejo ended his speech at the peak, and the crowd applauded until their hands were weary.”

That was Peter Camejo, back in the day.


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